Published January 23, 2022
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Ethnic and religious turmoil has been a constant in Pakistan. The state and governments have tried various measures to address it, by trying to outlaw ethnic and Islamist politics, and even by co-opting and absorbing it.

The politics of ethnicity was labelled as ‘regionalism’ when Pakistan came into being in 1947. It was seen as a threat, despite the country having multiple ethnic groups. Many of these were unhappy by the manner in which the Punjabis and the Mohajirs had apparently ‘usurped’ important positions in the country’s nascent state institutions. 

Democratic outlets were not allowed. They were perceived by the state as ways by which other ethnic groups would storm the state and government, and create chaos. Till 1971, the project to build a Pakistani nationalism that transcended regionalism was entirely in the hands of state elites. 

Islamists too were treated in a similar manner. The state took it upon itself to define the role of Islam in Pakistan. The Islamists were kept away from matters of state and governance. The state enforced an Islam that it claimed was ‘modern’, anti-theocracy, and one which the founders had adhered to.

This arrangement started to come apart when the state began to struggle in addressing the economic and political issues of a growing population. Those opposed to state elitism advised the implementation of parliamentary democracy through which all ethnic, religious, political and economic stakeholders would become equal partners in the nation-building process. But this only happened after the state’s myopic anti-regionalism caused the 1971 separation of East Pakistan on an ethnic basis. 

Ethnic and religious turmoil in Pakistan is deeply rooted in the years from before the country was created. But whereas absorption has quelled ethnic politics somewhat, Islamist sentiment has only been emboldened

The 1973 Constitution was hailed as a democratically achieved consensus document, with input from all stakeholders. The consensus recognised regionalism as a reality, but one which was to be put in the context of Pakistani federalism.

Islamists too were part of the new arrangement. But this experiment was retarded by the July 1977 military coup. However, even before the coup, because of various external and internal factors, Islamist sentiments had gained strength. They were increasingly absorbed by the government and the Constitution. This transmuted the civic-national tenor of the Constitution.

The military regime that came to power in 1977 revived the state’s strategy to suppress regionalism and neutralise the Islamists. Once again, it began to quell ethnic groups and define Islam’s role in Pakistan. During the country’s first two decades, the state had done this by sidelining the Islamists and conceiving a ‘modernist’ strand of Islam. After 1977, however, it began to co-opt a more theocratic version of the faith.

However, whereas the state curiously let regional tensions play themselves out, especially in Sindh, its patronage of a more radical variant of Islamism emboldened Islamist extremism in the country. 

Things haven’t improved since. The state and governments have taken steps, but it’s a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ sort of an approach. In fact, the state has trapped itself. The outcomes of the policies initiated from the mid-1970s began to shape a radicalised polity.

These policies define the polity’s political, social, and even economic disposition. They give the polity an identity, but one which now competes with the identity that the original idea of Pakistani nationalism constructed. This is why most Pakistanis today are more likely to call themselves Muslims first, rather than Pakistani.

The roots of these problems are embedded in the years before Pakistan was created. When Pakistan’s founding party, the erstwhile All India Muslim League (AIML), badly lost the 1937 elections in British India, it failed to prove its popularity in Muslim-majority regions such as Bengal, Punjab, Sindh and the erstwhile NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

In these provinces, ethnic sentiments were stronger than the League’s Muslim nationalism. For example, Sindhi, Bengali, Pakhtun and Punjabi Muslims often claimed that the interests of the Muslims of Bengal, Punjab, Sindh and NWFP were being undermined by Muslim leaders of the provinces where the Muslims were in a minority.

In 1937, the Bengali leader A.M. Ahmed declared that the Muslims of Bengal were not only different from the Hindus, but from Muslims of other provinces as well. The Muslims of Punjab, NWFP and Sindh too held similar views. It would take rising Hindu-Muslim violence, and an unabashed plunge into populist politics, for the League to get the reluctant Bengalis, Punjabis and Sindhis to vote for the League during the 1946 elections.

 But one election victory does not make a nation. Therefore, these groups, except for the Punjabis, found themselves increasingly alienated in Pakistan. The Mohajirs too began to feel the same in the 1980s. Early implementation of democracy could have lessened the ethnic commotion that went on to haunt the country for decades.

The Islamists who want to establish an ‘Islamic state’ in Pakistan, actually wanted to do so within India. And this was largely inspired by the lesser-known fact that, during the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924), the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Hind (JUIH), invented a “temporary system of caliphate” until the Ottoman caliphate that the party was trying to save, were restored.

In 1921, a subcommittee of JUIH ulema agreed to elect an ‘Amir-i-Hind.’ This Emir was required to oversee enforcement of Shariah laws in Muslim-majority regions of India. According to Mushirul Hasan, in the anthology Communal and Pan-Islamic Trends in Colonial India, tribunals were set up in NWFP. But the movement failed.

The memory of this unfulfilled project remained fresh in the minds of most Islamists. In 1946, it was repeated as a promise by the pro-League ulema, especially in Punjab, much to the cringing of the League’s president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Echoes of such Islamist fantasies, and of how the Muslims of Punjab, Sindh, Bengal and NWFP understood Islam through ethnic lenses, were repressed. But this did not make them go away. They continued to ring, so much so that the state had to frantically absorb them.

The absorption has somewhat worked to pacify regionalism. But the absorption of Islamist sentiments has made the state increasingly theocratic and thus continue to entrap itself. Therefore, every step forward to resolve this, is followed by two steps back.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 23rd, 2022



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