The state should understand what engenders identity politics along ethnic and other lines and take corrective measures
Francis Fukuyama, the author of the famous book The End of History and the Last Man published his new book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment in September 2018. The rise of identity politics, as Fukuyama believes, is of a recent provenance. It has emerged in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The practitioners of identity politics are not only people and their groups but also states, the latter being not the subject of this article. There are two leading ideas in identity politics. These are religion and nationalism, states Fukuyama. This article is confined to the latter idea only.
Like-minded people coalesce around issues of common concern. These issues may be related to rights of a variety of groups such as transgenders, gays and lesbians, racial, ethnic and religious communities. The demand of identity politics is an equal treatment, for a victim group, from the society or state depending upon the context and situation. A group of people might feel discriminated against and humiliated on varied grounds. These people resent the (perceived) indignities. Therefore, they rise and ask for the restitution of their dignity.
Using Fukuyama’s identity politics as a framework, this article examines the latest course of Pashtun nationalism as a case study. Identity politics revolves around the dignity an alleged victim promises to his group over how the external environment treats it as being the other. For the new breed of Pashtun nationalists, Pashtuns are the victims of terrorism and yet they are also treated and punished as its perpetrators. It was the state’s strategic policy under which thousands of people from across Pakistan were recruited into the war effort as cannon fodder during the era of anti-Soviet resistance. A chunk of those recruits came from Pashtun-populated areas especially the tribal districts. The region was also used as a vast staging area for guerrilla attacks inside Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of Soviets from Afghanistan, Taliban also recruited from tribal districts with official complicity or at least connivance.
Identity has remained a contentious issue in Pakistan. The state primes its citizens for an overarching national identity which demands near deletion of all subnational identities. This is hugely problematic, however. We live in a world with subnational, national and transnational influences.
After 9/11, when the US attacked the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, the Islamist militia and al Qaeda operatives relocated to tribal districts. Several military operations were carried out in tribal districts to flush Taliban out. Differentiating between good and bad Taliban was the hallmark of these operations. In the process, children, women, elderly and tribesmen were caught in the crossfire. The vast majority of the 70,000 Pakistanis killed in the war against terror were Pashtuns from tribal districts and the larger Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They were killed for a wrong of not their making, goes the Pashtun nationalist narrative.
Pashtun neo-nationalists demand that Pashtuns, especially those hailing from tribal districts, be treated in accordance with the rights of citizens enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan. The original four demands of neo-nationalists were the arrest and trial of Rao Anwar, accused of killing over 400 people in fake encounters, in a court of law; the demining of tribal districts in general and South Waziristan in particular; putting an end to curfews that are imposed in the wake of an untoward incident mainly in South Waziristan; and the recovery and fair trial of all missing persons from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elsewhere. The leadership of the new nationalist movement highlighted what it believed was the ‘systematic injustice’ carried out against Pashtuns.
Identity has remained a contentious issue in Pakistan. The state primes its citizens for an overarching national identity which demands near deletion of all subnational identities. This is hugely problematic, however. We live in a world with subnational, national and transnational influences. The state should promote national identity, something which every state, including liberal democracies, does. The state should understand what engenders identity politics along ethnic and other lines and take corrective measures. It is mainly peoples’ sufferings that spawn identity politics.
In December 2019, in connection with International Human Rights Day, the US Treasury Department blacklisted former SSP Rao Anwar for engaging in “serious human rights abuse” including the extra judicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud. It should have been the Pakistani government that took a step in the right direction by trying the man in a court of law. It is not too late to restore the dignity of citizens by acceding to what they want within the ambit of law of the land. Doing so may help dilute sub-nationalistic sentiments, treated as something antithetical to national identity.