Pakistan’s 'not India' branding

The more nationalism is protected in Pakistan, the more fragile it becomes

When Pakistan was created in 1947 it was a very peculiar country. It was the first country in the world to be established on the basis of ‘religious nationalism’. Before that, and since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, nationalism was usually based on ethnicity or race. The creation of Pakistan added a new dimension, and within a year, in June 1948, another country was also born using the same argument. However, while in Israel, religion and ethnicity were closely tied (and so, could also become secular to a degree), in Pakistan, the ‘one nation’, was only possible on the basis of religion, since the country was not only composed of diverse ethnicities which spoke different languages, but also about a fifth of the country, even after the ravages of Partition, was not Muslim.

A very narrow view of nationalism in Pakistan meant that not only did other forms of identity become suspect, even treasonous, to espouse, non-Muslims were squarely out of the equation. Thus, while in the first decade after independence all federal cabinets tried to keep at least one Hindu minister, in the period of Ayub Khan, even that fig leaf was done away with. In the ‘enlightened’ period of Ayub Khan, Hindu Pakistanis became so marginalised that eventually it strongly fed the separatism in East Bengal. The precarious state of ethnic nationalism is also easily told in Pakistan, with all forms of it, be it Pakhtun, Sindhi, Baloch or even more recently the Mohajir nationalism, all declared antagonistic to even the existence of the state.

Pakistan’s precarious existence, exasperated by the separation of East Pakistan in 1971, has meant that a heightened and an extreme form of nationalism has always been the norm rather than the aberration. Where in the West, and even in India, the rise of an extreme form of nationalism is seen as a deviation, in Pakistan it has been the norm since its inception. It has led not only to the stifling of dissent – even legitimate and creative forms of it – but has also fostered a very skewed since of identity in the country. This paradoxically has led to the country becoming more insecure, wary and suspicious than ever before.

Despite its extreme dimensions, nationalism is not bad per se. After all, if you do not love and care about your country it will fall apart. Every country also has certain myths about itself, and as long as they do not fuel any delusions or extreme behaviours, they serve to bring the country together and foster a sense of shared nationhood, common purpose and unity. Hence, a lot of Britons like to passionately sing the hymn Jerusalem whereas none of what it says was actually true. But that does not really matter, as long as it creates a sense of English, or perhaps British, nationhood. It only becomes regressive and destructive once it begins to exclude and penalise.

Recently, there was an incident in Pakistan where an assistant commissioner in Attock got into some hot water for comments she had made. While speaking on national unity, she noted that all communities in the country – the majority Muslim, and all the minorities – should ‘unite’, against the enemies of the country. However, some people did not like that she mentioned a certain community in her speech, despite the fact that her speech was about national unity and was exhorting people towards it. For her detractors, Pakistani nationalism, as they defined it, excluded certain people who were Pakistanis by residence and nationality, but were not actually part of the ‘nation’. The sheer fact that she had to explain herself in front of a crowd, exhibited the nature of nationalism in Pakistan.

A uni-dimensional nationalism, which defines itself in very limited terms, also needs an ‘other’ to survive. For a long time in Pakistan, that ‘other’ has been India. Perhaps, the best way to ascertain how this idea works is to look at India these days itself, where a similar nationalism is on the rise. Watching any television show in India, or even listening to the speeches of the Indian prime minister, one might be forgiven in thinking that we might be back in 1947. Rather than worrying about issues of education, sanitation, jobs etc, the discussion in India these days is about Jinnah and Nehru, as if they were alive and in politics right now. Pakistan did that for decades, defining itself not in positive terms but as ‘not India’. Pakistan was the country in South Asia which was ‘not India’, not that it was Pakistan itself with its own internal and coherent identity.

The particular understanding of nationalism in Pakistan has, paradoxically, prevented the creation of any concrete form of nationalism in the country. Beyond the appellation of a particular religion, there is nothing which binds the people of the land together, and with so many sectarian differences there even that is tenuous at best. Thus, Pakistanis fall back on a factor which makes them part of a community of over a billion-and-a-half spread throughout the world, rather than people inhabiting a particular territory, having a distinct identity. Again, as compared to Israel where every Jew is considered part of the Israeli nation and has a right to move to the country, Muslims even in South Asia, let alone around the world, have no right to call Pakistan home. The more nationalism is protected in Pakistan, the more fragile it becomes.

In 1947, Pakistan and its understanding and performance of nationalism were novel, now it is increasingly the norm in the world. In an increasingly interconnected world, the rise of extreme nationalism is leading to more walls, more clampdowns on freedoms, and more xenophobia. But perhaps, now is the chance for Pakistan. Born in turmoil and perpetually the ‘crisis state’, perhaps now, when the norm of Pakistan is fast becoming the norm for the world Pakistan can move beyond it. Pakistan has had more experience than perhaps any other country in how an exclusive brand of nationalism can split the country, quite literally, and lead to deep fissures and divisions. Perhaps now, Pakistan can harness its version of nationalism into an internal, positive force for good, self-reflection, development and progress.


The author is a Research Excellence Fellow at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets at @BangashYK and can be reached at [email protected]

Pakistan’s‘not India’ branding and case of nationalism