NON-FICTION: THE POLITICS OF CONSTRUCTED IDENTITIES

June 16, 2019

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Women display their national identity cards while waiting in line to cast their votes
Women display their national identity cards while waiting in line to cast their votes

Before I engage in an analysis of What is Pakistaniat? 41 Elements of the Unique Pakistani National Identity and its author Javed Jabbar’s construction of ‘Pakistaniat’, or Pakistani identity, let me make three preliminary remarks.

First, identity is constructed with a political project in mind. Often what is subjective is touted as objective, whether it is self-characterisation or explaining what the prominent traits, features or behaviour patterns of other communities are. It is like adopting a name, choosing something desirable, cultivating an image and presenting it to the world. Every nation has constructed a narrative of its own history and identity. Much of the official ‘truth’ — if removed from the facts — loses value, as it falls to the low level of propaganda. We turn to professional historians and sociologists to break the myths; that generates not a single, but multiple understandings of national character and identity.

The second important point is that identity is a form of politics, which would be obvious from the above observation, and therefore it is an explosive issue. The question of what is the real character of a certain people, ethnic group or community becomes a contested issue for two reasons. First is the subjective lens that is often applied in imagining the self or the other. No group or people would like to cultivate anything negative about their own selves, or be generous or show empathy in portraying the other when the other is a community or any minority at the fringes of social and political power.

Javed Jabbar’s latest book attempts to deal with Pakistan’s ‘image’ and integration problems, but is less than scholarly

The second reason is the power of the outside or inside observer to generate ideas that attempt to establish certain characteristics. These are some rough, real or perceived notions about culture, civilisations and the patterns of behaviour of persons or of ethnic or religious communities. The colonial rulers in every part of the world wrote about their subject peoples, and their presentation has often stuck for ages. Decolonising the mind and gaining knowledge of the native self has long been — and remains — a big intellectual quest. It is not that easy to peel off colonial labels; it requires removing the layers of the dirt of misconceptions first, and then a long journey of recovering the real native and his or her true person buried under the debris of colonial gazettes.

The third, and final of my three preliminary remarks, is that identity is neither fixed — the author brings out this point very clearly — nor is it singular. It is layered, contextual and subjective. Who or what we are, are serious questions that may invoke very different and contradictory responses from different ethnic communities. It depends on the intellectual framework applied to the understanding of the identity issue or issues. Is it a singular national identity framework, a primary choice and analytical tool of nationalist historians and sociologists, or multiculturalism as an intellectual paradigm?

One cannot but be impressed by the work and determination that have gone into defining the identity markers noted in What is Pakistaniat? Jabbar asserts that there are 41 “unique” elements of the Pakistani national identity, although why these elements cannot be more or less, just the fixed number, is a question that I feel pressed to raise. Furthermore, what art or science has the author applied in formulating this list? For an answer, one must recognise the right of everyone in understanding the social world and one’s preferred presentation of one’s own nation. The work under review has a familiar issue of constructed ‘objectivity’ laid in thick layers of benign self-imagination.

Let me explain this a little further with reference to the material in the book. The author has created five clusters of identity worth mentioning to generate interest in reading the book, no matter what may be one’s take on Pakistaniat or the national identity of Pakistan. These are individual, collective, evolving, assertive and troubled identities. One can contest the selection of identity traits, the methodology and the placing of behavioural patterns into exclusive boxes, but Jabbar is right with regards to the multi-dimensional nature of the identity issue. It is not one thing, one aspect or a single colour, but a rainbow of characteristics. The book presents perhaps more of them than even the best of creative imagination can bring forth. Reading about them, one cannot escape some contested notions, such as “pride in being a citizen of a nuclear-weapon state”, or “pride in being part of an intangibly exclusive persona called ‘Pakistani’.”

There are a number of issues that one can raise, but I would prefer to leave them out because the book under review doesn’t merit a place in the category of rigorous research or scholarship. Neither, I believe, is that the intention of the author at all. Even if there is any such pretension, the content of the book would betray it. The objective of writing this sort of book is two-fold: first, to make the reader believe that Pakistan is not a new country born on Aug 14, 1947, carved out of the erstwhile British India, but explain its emergence in “historical, evolutionary terms”, as the “seed of Muslim nationalism in South Asia ... was sown about 1,300 years earlier when the first individual of the Islamic faith must have stepped on to the soil of the region.” It seems this very old narrative about Pakistan’s historical existence has not gone away or been confined to the periphery, but remains a subject of discussion.

The second avowed objective of the book is to deal with the ‘image’ and integration problems of Pakistan. The author argues that “in view of the threats to internal cohesion ... there is a dire need to articulate and assert the elements of identity to make each Pakistani aware of the diverse complexity and the unifying singularity of Pakistaniat.” Any book written by such motives with manifested assertions about the characteristic of any nation — in this case Pakistan — will certainly provoke a lot of debate and discussion as much as controversy and intellectual curiosity.

The reviewer is professor of political science at LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity

What is Pakistaniat? 41 Elements of the
Unique Pakistani National Identity
By Javed Jabbar
Paramount, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9696375708
160pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 16th, 2019