“We are a nation in search of its moorings”

August 14, 2022

A seasoned politician and an advocate of progressive and liberal values, Senator Mian Raza Rabbani is a former chairman of Senate. He has also served as federal minister in several cabinets. The News on Sunday spoke to Senator Rabbani on the question of identity, the politics surrounding it and how it continues to shape modern day political rhetoric. Excerpts:

“We are a nation in search of its moorings”


he News on Sunday (TNS): Despite the passage of 75 years, there seems to be a failing in identifying the kind of nation Pakistanis aspire to be. To what do you attribute the confusion regarding the national identity?

Raza Rabbani (RR): Religion was amongst the reasons for which Pakistan was created. Once Quaid’s Pakistan – a progressive, democratic, parliamentary welfare state – was converted into a national security state, the dynamics and emphasis on history and culture changed. I cannot subscribe to the views of Zia, the dictator, who equated Pakistan with Israel, in 1981. The state, by deliberate intent, smothered the popular awareness that Pakistan was a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual region. Attempts were made and continue to foist a culture that is not indigenous to the Indus Valley. The historical diversity was put in the water shed. Regional languages and cultures were discouraged. There was a failure to realise that a Pakistani culture would develop from a synthesis emerging from this diversity.

TNS: Do you believe that shifting government policies have left the people confused about their political and national identity?

RR: In my view the state has been very clear in its ideology. It has been a centralised state with the apparatus of power and control of the natural resources resting with the civil-military bureaucracy. To achieve this, the power equation has changed accordingly to convince the stakeholders i.e., political parties, the religious right, judiciary, the feudals and big businesses. That is why the state – in contradiction with the founding parliamentary and federal principles – played with One Unit, Parity, military dictatorship, a presidential system, a quasi-presidential system, a non-elected Majlis and partyless elections. The ideology was the same throughout: a denial of the people’s rule.

It is a matter of shame that 75 years later, we are a nation still in search of its moorings. We remain a nation looking for ways to circumvent its constitution; a nation where a heightened awareness of your constitutional rights can make you go missing; a nation where the provinces live in the fear that their autonomy under the constitution may be rolled back; and a nation where the trichotomy of power envisaged in the constitution is not respected.

TNS: What factors have shaped the identity (crisis) over the years?

RR: The crisis persists. In fact, it is driving the Federation to the edge of the precipice. The deliberate intent of some state institutions to deny that we are a multi-lingual people and the efforts to hinder the promotion of its languages has created mistrust. Those who spoke about rights within the Federation of the Baloch, Sindhi, Pushtun, Punjabi and others were dubbed traitors – this created the mistrust. The advocates of civilian ascendency never saw the light; this led to more mistrust. Deliberately playing with the intent and meaning of the Two Nation Theory to forward a certain agenda, created mistrust. The question of the state and religion coupled with the minorities and the power capture by the elite have alienated the common man from the state. National identity is a feeling of belongingness to the state among the people. The ship will continue to be rudderless in an atmosphere of distrust as citizens are unable to participate in the national discourse.

TNS: Is there a political consensus over how Pakistanis choose to define their national identity?

RR: Consensus is a long shot; there is no thought on the matter.

TNS: How has the Islamisation of the society and politics during the 1980s impacted politics, freedoms and democracy in the country?

RR: In those days, there was a counter narrative of the Left. It found expression in some mainstream and regional parties, labour movements, student unions, academia and civil society. After the people’s revolution led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto brought down the Ayub regime, the ‘state’ went to the drawing board again. They identified three main forces, namely: student unions, trade unions and the tea house culture. During Zia’s period, student unions were banned - the ban has continued to date; trade unions were corrupted and crushed; and the tea house culture was made subject to state vandalism. Academic freedom in educational institutions was brought to naught. The civil society was brow beaten at times resulting in disappearances. The media has been systematically divided and those who brave to be truthful pay the price.

“We are a nation in search of its moorings”

After the 18th Amendment, we have seen a gradual judicialisation of politics and of late, parliamentary proceedings. The rights of the provinces provided under the 1973 constitution are being circumvented. To mention only a few: it’s been over 10 years since there was an NFC Award; since 2010, there has been no mechanism in place to give effect to the amendment of Article 172(3) of the constitution that provides 50 percent share in natural oil and gas between the federation and the province in which it is found. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The protection of the rights of the common man is a far cry. The application of the law depends on your classification of affiliation with the ruling elite. Democracy is fighting a battle for its survival with some highly compromised defenders. The parliament has been made redundant. It seems that it doesn’t have the will to restore its rightful place in the constitution. Still, all is not lost. Historically, the peoples are resilient; they have been arrested, tortured and hanged for their political thoughts but they have never faltered in struggle. The sun sets only to rise again.

TNS: With religious extremist organisations making inroads into mainstream electoral politics, what sort of political rhetoric and political identity do you foresee?

RR: Some regional and ethnic groups/ parties crawl out of the laboratory of “election engineering” now and then to bring about the desired results. History has shown that such creations can become Frankensteins that even the state has difficulty later in controlling. The consequences are borne by all. In the process, some of these leave an unbridgeable divide in the society.

TNS: How are political parties engaging with the identity debate?

RR: There is no serious debate on the political, academic or civil society platforms on this issue. On the other hand, the state – learning no lesson from history - continues to push ahead without appreciating the ground or historical realties. This is a recipe for disaster.

TNS: How do we move ahead from here? What role can the state institutions, political and religious parties and the civil society play?

RR: There is light at the end of the tunnel, provided that all stakeholders admit their mistakes, come to grips with the internal fault lines and manage the changing international situation according to national security priorities.

There has to be a process of dialogue and national healing. The dialogue, in the first phase, has to be between the political parties to assess the ground rules. A Charter of Democracy II has to be agreed upon. In the second phase, an institutional dialogue between institutions functioning under the constitution must take place to respect the independence of each and function within the trichotomy of power as envisaged in the constitution. Such dialogues can be led by the Committee of the Whole Senate of Pakistan. This will not be a new role for it. In 2017, when I was the Senate chairman, the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the Chief of Army Staff, came to the parliament and discussed the issues of speedy justice and national security, respectively, with the committee. A Charter of the Economy is necessary.

The healing will come from a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, not to punish any individual(s) or institution(s) but to identify the individual(s), segments of society and others who have been wronged by the state and for the state to admit the wrongs.

The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillani@gmail.com. He tweets at @waqargillani

“We are a nation in search of its moorings”