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Nationalism: theirs and ours

October 09, 2012

NATIONALISM, as the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out, is essentially an imagined sentiment.

It is retrospectively, or sometimes concurrently, developed, mostly by invoking a particular understanding of history, the present, and future.

Hence in simple terms, the first step in the construction of a ‘nation’ is the development of its past, the second step is how it achieved or will achieve territorial coherence, and the third step is to recognise what it means to be a part of it.

In the case of Pakistan, the state, specifically the army and bureaucracy, has controlled the nationalist project in a variety of ways, not least through the distortion of history.

The state-sanctioned story of Pakistan starts with the advent of Islam in South Asia, focuses on ideas of Muslim power, decline and revivalism, and creates a linear narrative that connects a lot of disparate dots over a time span of 12 centuries.

In the same vein, the achievement of a separate homeland is explained in terms of the much-vaunted two-nation theory, the idea of Muslims as a separate political and social category in South Asia, and the idea of — ironically enough — minority oppression and religious freedom.

Finally, the state’s response to constant questions of what it means to be Pakistani uses Islam as a source of personal identification, the insistence on using Urdu as a linguistic marker of Pakistaniat, and a whole host of other smaller symbols like shalwar-kameez and cricket.

When one compares it to a standardised check list of sorts, the statist narrative in all its two-nation, Urdu-speaking glory, is fairly comprehensive — at least on paper.

It covers almost all bases — quality and objectivity of that coverage notwithstanding — and provides a coherent, legitimising narrative for the Pakistani state.

It is so comprehensive, in fact, that over the last 65 years, most challenges to the Pakistani state, and specifically to its idea of Pakistani nationalism, have taken the form of diffused ethno-linguistic movements and region-specific subversions — whether it was in East Pakistan, or Sindh, or as we’ve consistently seen, in Balochistan.

In India, contrary to our case, challenges to the state’s hegemonic processes exist at both the local (Assam, Telengana, Kashmir the northeast) as well as the national level.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party attempted to revise school and college textbook curricula between 1998 and 2004, they were countered by strong opposition from opposition parties, like the Congress, secular groups and academics.

Essentially, the controversy showcased how there are competing versions of Indian nationalism and Indian history operating in the same political space.

The move to rejuvenate Ram as a symbol of Hindu masculinity, the portrayal of Mughal rule as being oppressive and the creation of India as the outcome of Hindu aspirations were challenged in both the political domain through political parties and civil society groups, and in universities and colleges — where nationalism itself has become an object of critical academic attention.

So what’s happened in Pakistan? Why hasn’t there been a more coherent and macro-challenge to statist history and religion-laced nationalism?

For starters, the few objective accounts of the Pakistan Movement focus more on elite manipulation in Punjab, the rise of the Muslim middle class in UP and Bengal, and Congress-Muslim League relations as verifiable historical truths.

The analysis of the ‘salariat’ class by Hamza Alavi, or of the politics within the Muslim League by Ayesha Jalal do not offer, on their own, any ideological weight that could justify the creation of Pakistan.

On the other hand, state-controlled history, peddled by a compromised, ideologically motivated academia, and taught in schools and colleges, presents the two-nation theory as gospel, and the creation of Pakistan as the inevitable outcome of a purposeful struggle.

Secondly, political and academic critiques of the state’s oppressive relationship with smaller ethno-linguistic groups, especially during the formative years, have so far been unable to provide a working framework that would accommodate disparate identities within the larger ambit of a single Pakistani polity.

The inevitable question that arises is that if a group or an individual is allowed to identify itself based on ethno-linguistic characteristics, what trait or feature, apart from geographical presence or a CNIC, would determine its overarching identity as a Pakistani?

The state, instead, answers this question by turning to an officially sanctioned religion and the imposition of an official language which, on paper, sidesteps the question of accommodation all together.

Thirdly, and intrinsically connected to the two points raised above, the progressive goals of greater freedom for religious minorities, women and marginalised groups are currently operating under a state that perpetuates individual identity on the basis of religion, and is constitutionally mandated to prefer one religion over the other.

Without an ideological overhaul of how the state itself views other religions, and how it views groups who oppress and discriminate against minorities, the odds of changing the status quo are quite low.

When these three are seen together, it becomes evident as to why the state’s brand of exclusionary nationalism and distorted history has only been countered at a diffused, geographically constrained level.

In 65 years, no ideological alternative has been able to scale itself up to the level where it can offer a comprehensive counter-construction of nationalism that would actually allow for progressive action.

It remains to be seen whether greater academic freedom, especially in the social sciences, and a more critical analysis of history and our current predicaments would allow for the development of more viable alternatives.

Till then, it’s safe to say that the state’s hegemony in the realm of identity and ideas will remain largely intact.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Twitter: @umairjav