Dilemma of nationhood

September 7, 2014

How can education help achieve a civil and open society in a situation characterised by competing ideas and existential tensions about the nature of Pakistani nationhood?

Dilemma of nationhood

In an earlier article I had pointed out that the institution of mass education was a very recent innovation in human history. It did not exist even in highly advanced civilisations. Greeks, Romans, Arabs, none had this institution even when at the peak of their civilisation.

But this is not to suggest that education was not important to them. It is only to recognise that this requirement to put all children in schools and make them spend a large part of their daily lives in there, year after year, until they were adolescents, was not thinkable under a different set of historical conditions.

The conditions under which mass education became a requirement involved, among other things, the development of a nation-state.The nation-state assumed such dominance in the international order of things that it rendered all other forms of statehood invalid and unacceptable.

As you can see, the word nation-state is a conjunction of nation and state so one term in this conjunction entails the other.

In other words, we cannot be content with having a state only. Statehood required nationhood and vice versa. When a state is formed without a nation already in place, it has to engage in what has become familiar to us as ‘nation-building’. In such a situation education, among other things, has to assume the task of instilling in the young ones the feeling of being part of a national community. If education fails in its universal reach and intensity, the project of nation-building is also at risk.

In the case of Pakistan the nation-building assumed great urgency primarily because we inherited a state but not fully achieved nationhood.

The two-nation theory provided Pakistanis with an ideology but did not endow it with the sociological characteristics of a nation. It could not erase the cultural and ethnic variations within the Muslims of subcontinent. The ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity had to be managed and assimilated within a properly conceived nationhood. Since religious nationalism was at the roots of Pakistan movement, religion continued to play a role in the project of nation-building.

Here it is important to note the distinction between a political community and a nation. While the Muslims in India were too differentiated to be a single nation, they had undoubtedly become a political category much before independence.

 Children growing up in Pakistan pick up their views about what it means to be a Pakistani depending on the type of schools they attend, where they grow up and under what socio-economic circumstances.

The development of Muslims as a political community in India was quite an achievement by the British colonial state.

So great was the internal diversity within the various kinds of Islams practiced by the South Asian Muslims that forging them as single political community had to involve aggressive erasing of all differences. This was in large part achieved through the census practices of the Raj. As the historian Ayesha Jalal argues, Hindus and Muslims were enumerated into existence as political communities.

While the strategy to count the population in terms of broad religious affiliations paved the way for the constitution of Muslims as a political category, it also created grounds for expression of the two-nation theory.

Clearly the two-nation theory was based on an ideal of Islam, which was quite different from the diverse versions of Islam practiced in the British India. Using idealistic terms, it projected Muslims as monolithic and religiously distinct and suppressed the ethnic, linguistic and even religious differences between Muslims. This represented what anthropologist Kaviraj calls a thinning of religion.

In simple terms, this thinning of religion refers to downplaying of the internal religious differences to forge political unity among the members of religious communities. This thinning of Islam suppressed the sectarian and ethno linguistic differences among the Indian Muslims. It was also able to unite Muslims on a single political platform. It is noteworthy that the right-wing political forces in India are using a similar thinning of Hinduism to forge together a Hindu nation.

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After independence, the new state was faced with the daunting task of translating the two-nation theory into reality. The talk of a secular Pakistan could not hold ground and the state had to ultimately undertake a nation-building project, which prioritised an ideal Muslim as the ideal citizen of Pakistan and Muslims as both a political community and a nation.

In part the efforts to sustain a nation in the name of religion inevitably involved configuring an appropriate relationship between the religion [being the marker of national identity] and the state [being a nation-state with its nation term already identified with Islam].

The famous objectives resolution, adopted by the constituent assembly of Pakistan in 1949, contained the precursors to this relationship. Pakistan was faced with the paradoxical challenge of upholding its credentials as a modern nation-state, but at the same time to ground this modernity in the tenets of Islam.

The ambiguities to create a Pakistani identity that accommodated the claims to both Islam and modernity were fully expressed, among other places, in early thinking about the tasks of education. The task of education, as Fazlur Rehman said in his address to the 1947 Education Conference, was "no less than building up of a modern democratic state whose citizens are equipped with the requisite training of body, mind, and character to live a good life."

Pakistani citizenship, like citizenship in most modern nation states, was also conceived as distinct from parochial identities. As he put it, "(t)here cannot be a greater source of pride and a better object of undivided loyalty than the citizenship of Pakistan, no matter what political, religious or provincial label one may possess." However, in the next breath he said that developing such loyalty called for a supreme act of dedication for which he could "think of no higher sanction than that of Islam."

But what did Islam really mean and who was a Muslim?

Apart from the agreement on the fundamental articles of faith, the disagreements on this question were substantial. The authors of Munir Commission report (1953) expressed these disagreements quite eloquently.

For those readers who may not know Munir Commission was formed after the first wave of anti-Ahmadiyya protests orchestrated by Majlis-e-Ahrar and Jamaat-e-Islami. Munir Commission concluded that it was impossible to define what it meant to be a Muslim.

As the report put it: "What is Islam and who is a momin or a Muslim? We put this question to the ulema and we shall presently refer to their answers to this question. But we cannot refrain from saying here that it was a matter of infinite regret to us that the ulema whose first duty should be to have settled views on this subject, hopelessly disagreed among themselves."

The ‘hopeless disagreements’ the Munir Commission refers to comes into limelight every now and then to haunt the official images of an ideal Muslim citizen.

Political communities are not as stable as the nations. They are formed around political causes and can disappear after those causes have been achieved. The resilience of politics based on ethnicities, language, and culture in Pakistan shows that Muslims as a unified community ceased to exist.

As discussed at some length above, Pakistan has engaged in an unending project to define a nation. As the most recent constitutional amendment shows, it has almost given up the management of ethnic differences as markers of Pakistani identity. The use of religion as a marker of national identity is already strained and will come under increasing pressure as the numbers of graduates from madrassahs of various sect-denominations increase.

The existential dilemmas inherent in Pakistani nationhood are fully expressed through the diversity of educational practices in Pakistan.

Children growing up in Pakistan pick up their views about what it means to be a Pakistani depending on the type of schools they attend, where they grow up and under what socio-economic circumstances. Some get taught comparative religion and grow up to believe in a secular Pakistan, others are groomed to think that Pakistan’s salvation lies in becoming a truly Islamic state. There are yet others who, untouched by the public schools, grow up to not believe in Pakistani project at all.

The unachieved Pakistani nationhood is not being helped by the bewildering diversity of the school systems in Pakistan. What is even more worrisome is that schools, whether elite English medium or low cost affordable and public, are not teaching their students the art and craft of civil and peaceful debate with those who hold a different point of view. The educators and educational researchers are increasingly blinded by the global education agendas, as exhibited by a focus on test scores and accountability policies.

The larger question is how education can help achieve a civil and open society in a situation characterised by competing ideas and existential tensions about the nature of Pakistani nationhood. The educational tasks in such situations should not be to indoctrinate but to produce sympathetic listeners and participants in an unending conversation about the nature of our national identity.

Dilemma of nationhood