Constructing National Identity

August 2015
by Javed Jabbar

14th August is as much about the continuing evolution of a singular yet kaleidoscopic Pakistani national identity as it is about the anniversary of the Independence of the State of Pakistan.

What does Pakistani identity mean to a little girl called Fatima who has never been to school, is displaced due to floods, sitting in a shelter on a bund near Khairpur on the Indus River on 3rd August 2015? As I tried to momentarily engage her in a brief conversation, she afforded me a sceptical look. And what does Pakistani identity mean to another Fatima of about the same age who studies in a leading private school in Karachi? The city Fatima is guaranteed to proceed soon to an American university for higher education. Unlike the Fatima on the river bank who is likely to be married off shortly to become the mother of at least 2 children by the age of 18, with more to come in the years ahead. Is there only a thin, transient connection between the two? Perhaps one day both Fatimas will know they share more than a very special name.

For a population that is 97 per cent Muslim and seemingly similar, the people of Pakistan are spectacularly diverse, plural and heterogeneous. In ethnicity, languages, dialects, life-styles, classes, regions, topographies, cuisines, and cultures.

Even the 3 per cent non-Muslim population reflects a splendid diversity, be they Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Zorastrians, and others. In their capacity as the first and original Pakistanis --- if prolonged residency on a particular part of earth is a fundamental factor of determining national identity --- who have been here long before the first Muslims stepped on this land, these non-Muslims have made the gracious giant leap into loyal citizenship of the new State. With dedication and quietude they serve the nation in a wide range of fields. Some of them face re-current threats from bigots and from the misuse of blasphemy laws. Yet they continue to make their own valued contributions to the formation of the nation's profile.

In theory, identity should be instantly articulated and accepted as with an NIC card issued by NADRA bearing the basic, minimal data. Yet, in practice, the totality of identity is often not so easily expressed. Identity can be ephemeral, elusive, evasive. It cannot always be put into a straitjacket and immobilized. Some features abide. Others can change.Nor is claimed identity easily accepted by others. Like beauty, identity may often be determined by the beholder, rather than the holder of the identity itself.

Unlike a ready-made identity shaped by broadly shared features of history, ethnicity, language and culture such as by the peoples of Greece, Egypt, China, Turkey, and Iran, Pakistani national identity had to start from scratch in 1947. Most often, nations shape the State within which they reside. Sometimes, States facilitate the formulation of the identity of the nation, or nations which reside within it. In Pakistan's case, both nation and State were substantively declared over-night on 14th August 1947.

Prior to 1947 in a short period of only a few years, some segments of Muslim nationalism in South Asia adopted the slogan of Pakistan. But no Pakistani nation existed before 1947 just as no Pakistani State existed before 1947. Therefore, in contrast to the already-formed identities of historical nations, the process of creating a Pakistani national identity proceeded step-by-step, brick-by-brick, hurdle-by-hurdle, ditch-by-ditch, onward of 1947.

The phenomenal achievement of the formation of the Pakistani State in 1947 became a most significant factor in stimulating the evolution of Pakistani nationalism, as distinct from the concept of Muslim nationalism in South Asia which emerged before 1947.

For 24 years from 1947 to 1971 the process of formulating a coherent singular new Pakistani national identity comprising diverse --- and distant --- ethnic and linguistic streams such as Punjabi and Bengali stumbled on the rocks of denial of language rights, unfair distribution of power, and discrimination and inequity that made Bengalis the main victims. Covert efforts by India to stoke differences and discontent in East Pakistan also helped obstruct the formation of a congruent Pakistani identity. But the major responsibility for the problem was our own.

The secession of East Pakistan in 1971 represented a rupture of the State of Pakistan and a rejection of singular national identity-formation. Yet, Bengali nationalism became a distinct Bangladeshi Muslim nationalism. 44 years after 1971 there is absolutely no sign of this Bangladeshi Muslim nationalism being willing to merge itself into a partnership with West Bengali Hindu Indian nationalism, despite sharing aspects of language, ethnicity and culture.

Thus, the two-nation theory advocated by Chaudhry Rehmat Ali and Quaid Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and several others, of Hindus and Muslims being two distinct nations remains alive and well today in 2015. The major difference being that with 1971, 3 separate States came to be required to accommodate these two separate nations: a pre-dominantly Muslim Pakistan, a slightly less Muslim-dominant Bangladesh, and a diverse, scattered Muslim nation living alongside a pre-dominantly Hindu majority in an Indian State that officially calls itself secular but in which the religious dimension is playing an increasing, rather than a receding role.

The construction of a new, relatively vaguely identified form for Pakistani identity as adopted in 1947 did not attempt —unlike the aggressive Euro-American form --- to suppress or obliterate the original indigenuous identities of the peoples who lived upon the land which became Pakistani territory in 1947. There was certainly a massive influx of migrants from other parts of South Asia into the new Pakistani territory between 1947 to about 1951. But this influx, while changing the demography of urban Sindh in particular did not overwhelm and disempower the original residents as happened with the indigenuous peoples of the Americas and Australasia.

The intrusive factor seeking to formulate a new Pakistani identity sought an accommodation with long-established, deeply-rooted, historical, land-based, ethnic-driven identities--- within a new, invented, over-arching supra-identity of Pakistan. This new supra-identity, in principle, sought to acknowledge and respect the pre-existing identities of Punjab, Sindh, Pakhtoon, Baloch, Barahvi, Seraiki, Hazara and others.

Alas, similar respect was not extended to Bengali identity. Yet, in spite of the grievous setback of 1971, Pakistani identity- formation salvaged the priceless name of Pakistan and quickly rebounded to revitalize itself in, and after, the 1970s.

Where some national identities are rooted in the past, Pakistani identity from birth was, and still is, primarily aspirational and futuristic. Historical national identities also contain an aspirational facet, a desire for a great future. But these older identities already have a solid foundation rooted in hundreds or thousands of years of history. Whereas Pakistani identity-formation began only 68 years ago, a mere blink in the seamless context of time.

Unlike a distinct and generally singular ethnic, linguistic and Arab identity in Egypt and a similarly comprised Greek identity in Greece, there is no singular Pakistani ethnic or singular Pakistani linguistic identity.

There are nations like Switzerland which have multiple linguistic and ethnic sub-identities --- Swiss-German, Swiss-French, Swiss-Italian --- which contribute towards a broader, singular Swiss national identity. In this context, Pakistan is closer to Switzerland as a composite of identities but is younger in age and needs more time to sharpen its contours.

Our identity-formation proceeds at different levels. Through internal migration and mingling. Through inter-marriages between different ethnicities. Through living cheek by jowl with immediate neighbours who speak a mother tongue different from our own. Through work with people quite different from our respective communities, through commerce and trade between Provinces and within Provinces. Through inter-actions in bazaars, markets, shopping malls, bus terminals and railway stations. At mazaars, shrines, temples, churches. Through an educational system which, notwithstanding its deficiencies and limitations, instills the basic building blocks of a single national identity in young minds. Through institutions such as the Senate, the National Assembly, the Provincial Assemblies, Local Bodies, the national - level political parties, the Supreme Court, the High Courts, the Armed Forces, the bureaucracy.

Through the use of Urdu as a facilitator of communication, through State media such as PBC and PTV that project a formal, propagandistic yet singular national narrative. Through the proliferation of raucous private TV channels and FM radio channels. Through the rapid growth of digital social media. Through the spread of cell phones and smart phones. Through melodies such as "Sohni Dharti" and "Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan" from the 1970s, to "Dil Dil Pakistan" and others from a few years ago.

In this writer's view, 15 elements ripple and rumble, diverge and synthesize as they energize the flow toward Pakistani national identity. Listed in brief form and in varied language, these elements of "Pakistaniat" originally appeared in a book by this writer titled : "Pakistan—unique origins; unique destiny?". In a new version being presented in this essay for the first time, an attempt is made to indicate that the content of "Pakistaniat" is principally positive but that there are also some negative features and some elements of self-doubt which, taken together, contribute to this very special brew.

The 15 elements of "Pakistaniat" are:

  1. Self-assuredness and pride in being Muslim in a pre-dominantly Muslim nation. Also deriving resonance from the pre-Muslim heritage of Mehargarh and Moenjodaro 7000-5000 years ago, as well as the Muslim legacy inspired by the message revealed in Mecca and Medina 1400 years ago.
  2. Self-confidence and pride in possessing the identities of families, tribes, communities which have lived on the territories of Pakistan for hundreds of years before the establishment of the State of Pakistan and then transition into citizenship of a new State based on the same historical territories, while asserting a new sense of proprietorship over the land and its resources.
  3. Self-realization and pride in becoming Pakistani by choice through migration (like this writer, and his father !) and fusing one's soul with new soil. Thereafter, from off-springs, a new sense of deep, strong affinity with the land on which they live.
  4. Self-awareness and pride in being of a non-Muslim faith and yet being able to live in fraternity with Muslims. Despite dangers posed to their security by extremists and despite being unfairly Constitutionally barred from holding the offices of President and Prime Minister, and despite facing some other forms of discrimination, continuing to be devoted, loyal citizens of the State.
  5. Pride in Pakistan's successes and achievements in diverse fields.
  6. Enjoyment of the vivacity, the colours, the variety of the country's range of regional cultures, cuisines, characteristics, and its wealth of talent in the arts, in literature,in vocal and in instrumental music, in media, commerce, agriculture, industry and services.
  7. Pride in being a nuclear-weapon State, able to deter, or to respond to a nuclear threat from India.
    Accompanied by a remarkable capacity to compartmentalize attitudes toward India eg. consuming media content from India while maintaining a distinct Pakistani identity and viewpoint on issues.
  8. A special exhilaration in the victories by Pakistani teams or individuals in sports, athletics and games.
  9. Even if living in other countries as overseas Pakistanis, temporarily or permanently, retaining strong spiritual, emotional links with Pakistan.
  10. Deep concern at the country's numerous crises and an obsessive interest in politics and democracy. In spite of being a religion-related State, consistently demonstrating a preference for non-religion-based political parties. Accompanied by startling apathy and indifference: along with a tendency to keep voting for the very same persons and parties that have frequently demeaned public trust. Despair at the inability of the country to produce dynamic leadership of integrity--- without the willingness to accept the responsibility of the people themselves to produce the ideal leadership.
  11. Use of Urdu as a national lingua-franca despite Urdu being the original mother tongue of only about 10 to 15 percent of the population.
  12. The retention and respectful practice of Muslim and/or traditional eastern beliefs and rituals by both Muslim and non-Muslim parts of the population which practice some aspects of a Western life-style --- and yet remain thoroughly Pakistani.
  13. Pride in the Armed Forces of Pakistan and acknowledgment of their sacrifices in the wars against internal and external threats --- despite strong reservations among parts of the population about the 4 military interventions in the political domain and the catastrophic mistakes made by the military leadership in 1971, and in later periods. At the same time, a view among some parts of the population that the rot has gone so deep in Pakistani society and politics that only the "danda" (stick) of a dictator, once again from the Army, can set things right.
  14. Pride in being part of an intangibly exclusive persona called Pakistan despite also feeling tormented and troubled by conditions. For instance : disturbed by the repeated occurrence of persons going missing,or turning up dead, with intelligence agencies being suspected of such acts. Aware that such means are used to avoid letting a weak prosecution and legal process enable the guilty to get away.
  15. Blind faith in a stable future for Pakistan, regardless of the prevailing and persistent problems.
There are countervailing pressures that deliberately, or inadvertently challenge both the spontaneous, organic evolution of Pakistani identity and confront the State's capacity to build structures and institutions that will combat divisive, centrifugal forces, internal as well as external.

Elements that distort the maturation of national identity include religious extremism, violent sectarianism, subversive terrorism, external forces with their own agendas, secessionist militias, criminal mafias, primitive social practices retained in the name of tradition and honour, abject poverty, degradation of natural eco-systems and the built environment caused by human greed and insensitivity, loss of livelihoods, and loss of faith in institutions. In the face of such formidable issues it is appreciable, if not admirable, that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis persevere in their pursuit of a coherent identity and a fulsome destiny.

Despite the dysfunction and despair of bad governance and all other ills, the fact is that our hearts warm up and our eyes mist over at the melody and the words of our national anthem, at the sight of our national flag fluttering in the wind, at the news of individual achievements and collective triumphs of Pakistanis in numerous fields.

Like the origins of the country itself, Pakistani national identity is unique : evolving and growing even as it races to catch up with historical nations in the Identity League, even as it grapples with conflictual components, and aims to become enduring.

Pakistani national identity is like a perpetual work-in-progress. Follow it with patience over the next few centuries !

As published in the Dawn special report on 14th August 2015.