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The long march

December 29, 2017


MORE than 80 years ago, Mao Zedong and his companions embarked on a journey of Herculean proportions across China which turned them into folk heroes and kick-started the victorious phase of the Chinese national liberation struggle. Other similarly epic struggles followed through the rest of the 20th century in countries as diverse as Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria and Angola. Mao’s Long March and the movements led by Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Ahmed Ben Bella and others united their societies against the forces of reaction and provided the basis for what the great anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon would call an organic ‘national’ culture.

There are innumerable problems enveloping Pakistan at present, and we could endlessly debate which crises are the most pressing. In my opinion the single biggest challenge facing us is the utter absence of a shared identity — and with it a commitment to a collective project.

Most notable is just how divided Pakistani society remains along ethnic lines. Of course movements of goods and people over the past 70 years have been the basis of a certain degree of economic integration. But no informed observer of this country can deny that cultural and political cleavages run deep — and we continue to pretend that they don’t exist at our own peril.

Our biggest challenge is the absence of a shared identity.

At least some of the mistrust derives from the manner in which ‘public opinion’ is constructed, and particularly the antics of the corporate media. To take the most obvious example, while the dharnas and long marches of mainstream politicians and the religious right garner uninterrupted coverage — even though they are limited to major metropolitan centres and the Punjabi heartland — we hear almost nothing about the politics of resistance in peripheries such as Fata, Balochistan, Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

Over the past week, a massive long march brought together a wide cross section of social and political forces in GB against the imposition of a taxation regime in the region that rubs salt into the seven-decade-old wound of a people that are paraded as Pakistanis but deprived of constitutional rights. The protest was called off after the government agreed to take a step back — but there was hardly any ‘breaking news’ update on major TV channels or lead stories in newspapers in mainland Pakistan at any stage during the popular movement.

The Balochistan story is known to many; while the Baloch have on paper the constitutional rights that the people of GB or Fata do not enjoy, it is not hard to understand why such a wide cross section of Baloch society continues to perceive that the Baloch are colonial subjects of the Pakistani state. Does anyone even remember the long march of some years ago led by families of Baloch missing persons? While the issue had garnered some space in the mainstream media, the Baloch cause remains largely vilified, often reduced to a ‘conspiracy’ against the state of Pakistan.

The most talked-about political conflict is centred in Punjab — between a predominantly Punjabi political party (PML-N) and one that is in government in KP but covets the position the PML-N occupies in Punjab (PTI). For the mainstream media and intelligentsia only the struggle to control Punjab matters — every other region simply makes the news because of ‘terrorism’, foreign conspiracies or ‘underdevelopment’.

It is thus that the trust deficit that has existed between the ethnic nations that constitute Pakistan from before the inception of the state remains unabridged. We can blame ethnic nationalists for stoking hatred at the behest of the ‘enemies of Pakistan’ all we want, but the truth is that the nation-building project itself remains deeply flawed. Going on and on about the indivisibility of the Muslim nation or the imperative of ‘development’ will not address the suspicions of politically conscious elements in the peripheries. Something much more substantial will have to give.

I have noted repeatedly that the state cannot be the guarantor of a progressive and inclusive Pakistan. To foment a genuine ‘national culture’ which acknowledges difference and promises all of this country’s ethnic nations a fair bargain is a no less Herculean task than that undertaken by the 20th century’s great revolutionaries. They too confronted badly divided societies, but they brought people together in the struggle — not on the basis of an idea of ‘nationhood’ that serves parochial interests.

All modern nation states continue to face contradictions about identity and power, the most recent examples are those of Catalonia and Scotland. These are not unusual or necessarily intractable problems. But the people of Balochistan, GB, Sindh, Fata and other disaffected regions will only own the epithet Pakistani when the rest of us make them feel like their culture, politics and economic needs are as important as ours, while making sure that we fight the good fight in Okara, Islamabad and Lahore.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2017