Published Apr 11, 2017 02:05am

National myths

Dr Niaz Murtaza

NATIONAL myths glorify nations, create a false sense of superiority and impunity among members towards others and cause abuse. Myths harm myth creators too as they abandon reality. Writers must bust myths to protect both. The two-nation theory is such a myth. Opposing it doesn’t mean opposing Pakistan. Liberal ideals better justify its creation. The theory says Muslims and Hindus are separate nations which must live apart. Its extreme versions sound segregationist. Conceptually, natural nations are large groups of co-resident people having one race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Japan and European countries called nation-states come close to this ideal.

Major internal divisions on even one identity axis often create friction and weaken natural nationhood. Hindus, Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis, all with many internal divisions and external links, are not natural nations as the two-nation theory implies. They are cultivated nations, ie diverse groups living together since it is mutually beneficial presently. But experiences affect cultivated views, contrary to the theory’s views of two eternally separate natural nations. So, most Muslims chose Pakistani cultivated nationhood but millions chose cultivated Indian one too.

Historically too, it is weak. If it is eternally true, why did Muslims come to Hindu India from Arabia? Why did they live with and rule Hindus for centuries instead of giving them a separate state based on such a theory? Why did the two-nation theory emerge when Hindu rule became certain? All this can only be justified by an absurd sense of superiority claiming a divine birthright to rule others, which many Muslims do hold despite their dismal morals and progress today. The weak status of minorities in Pakistan and many other Muslim states also disproves the view that the rulers here never abuse others.

Politics often uses catchy but inaccurate slogans. Seventy years after freedom with no threat to Pakistan’s existence, we must have the aplomb to accept that the theory was an inaccurate political slogan. Pakistan’s creation can be justified much better via liberal ideals about minority rights. A minority is similar in some ways but different in others from the majority. This better describes the status of Indian Muslims who shared culture but not faith with Hindus. Liberalism supports legal rights for minorities in diverse states to avoid abuse.

Pakistan’s creation can be justified much better via liberal ideals.

British India was very diverse but faith was more salient politically than ethnicity for many reasons. The biggest ethnicity (Bengalis) then was about 20 per cent but, in terms of faith, Hindus constituted about 65pc of India, making religious abuse a bigger risk. India earlier had seen misuse of power not by a ruling ethnic majority but a religious minority. So, relations were more frayed by faith than ethnicity. Hindutva’s rise enhanced tensions. India’s Muslims had also shunned education in their sulk at losing power.

All this made the Muslim minority more nervous than ethnic ones. Even if the ancestors of some of them had misruled, safeguards for Muslims as a minority were, liberally viewed, justified. Such safeguards could come within India or via freedom. Post-1945 breakaway states have usually had natural nationhood, concentration in a historical homeland, past autonomy and/or long abuse by others. Muslims had none of these. So freedom was an ambitious but not illegal aim.

In politics, one also often aims high to help in bargaining. So Muslims did later accept safeguards within India but Congress for its own good reasons chose divorce. This logic for Pakistan lacks the theory’s definitiveness with many ifs and buts but is closer to reality. The two-nation do­­mi­­nated 1940s politics but this logic guided neg­otiations.

Whatever the validity of its ex-ante logic, Pakis­tan justified its creation ex-post by excelling India eco­n­omically for 50 years. It gives more physical and economic security overall to Muslim elites and likely to masses too. But, it hasn’t given security to religious or ethnic minorities.

Hindutva’s rise with Modi furthers Pakistan’s rationale. But India now excels us economically. This edge may be permanent while Modism may not be. So, we must work to retain the ex-post logic. This means shunning the sense of superiority the theory gives. It hurts minorities but also us via a false sense of privilege which undermines work ethic and realism. Ironically, saying it remains valid today means Pakistani Hindus can secede as a separate nation.

Poor states like India and Pakistan do not alone invent myths. Rich ones do too. Liberalism opposes Zionist myths about the right of Jews to reclaim Palestine and evict current residents after 3,000 years of absence. It opposes US exceptionalism myths and its unilateral actions globally. The myths of rich states cause more damage and encourage myth creators in other states.

The writer is a political economist and a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2017

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