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Pakistan: Mirror, mirror

by Nazish Brohi, 22 April 2015

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Dawn, April 19, 2015

The Pakistani passport, I was told during a recent argument on nationalism, is our identity in the world. Appropriate then, that it depicts the national predicament. On the cover, embossed in gold, is the emblem of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The logo is a shield sectioned to represent four pillars of the economy. Except that they are not. It illustrates wheat and cotton but also jute and tea, unchanged after the breakup of the country. So the refusal to process what ’71 meant goes beyond abstractions like the two-nation theory and self-identity and to denial of tangible economics. In 2012, Pakistan imported tea worth over Rs25 billion from 19 different countries.

The shield is surrounded by a wreath as a testament to our Mughal heritage and through that, an assertion of our place in regional history and culture. Except that it has nothing to do with Mughal heritage. The wreath was first a Greek artifact carried over into Roman civilisation and later co-opted by Christianity. There is no wreath motif indigenous to Mughal art.

The wreath is woven with jasmine, the national flower. Mughal art depicts jasmine with five or seven long petals or nine small rounded ones, whereas the logo has six pointed ones, so it is not a jasmine flower either (corroborated by miniaturist Usman Saeed referencing a book by Asok Das on flora and fauna in Mughal art called Wonders of Nature — Ustad Mansur at the Mughal Court).

The emblem is topped with the crescent and star, popularised in the Muslim world by the Ottoman flag. The Ottomans got it from the pre-Islamic Constantinople flag, where the crescent symbolised the Greek goddess Artemis and the star, Virgin Mary. Our identity crisis spirals in from all kinds of directions.
Our nationhood crisis spirals in from many directions.

Officialdom reveres martial icons of Abdali, Ghauri and Ghaznavi whereas ordinary people want the Afghanistan problem (and Afghans in Pakistan, unfortunately) to simply disappear. Officialdom celebrates ties with China as a regional power corrective where­as common people want their Bollywood fix.

The Pakistan Army has named its drone after the horse that transported the Holy Pro­phet (PBUH) for Miraj. Buraq, the metaphor for ascension has been recast for aerial combat.

But contestations over religious symbolism emerge in incongruous places. On the back of trucks popular culture places a long-haired, kohl-eyed woman’s face on the body of the white winged horse; the other ticket to transcendence. No need to run around looking for counter-narratives. This is it.

To an extent, it is understandable that religion was inflated as the primary official identity in the decades following Partition. Unlike in other countries, it was not a state awarded to a nation; instead, a nation had to be constructed within a newly demarcated state.

It had to be cemented together by something more than disparate groups’ incentives for demanding independence, illusions of leaders and Radcliffe’s vagaries. Everything else was contested or varied in any case: language, geography, economic systems, social institutions.

Shared history is usually an important binding force. While Moenjodaro was discovered in the 1920s, detailed excavations were carried out in 1945. There was not enough time and knowledge transmission for it to start informing a sense of heritage. Mehrgarh was not discovered till the mid-1970s.

Well, actually this argument is a non-starter because these ancient civilisations still do not feature in any notions of roots and origins. That needed an Arab conqueror to land at Debal. Young people in Larkana know nothing about Moenjodaro except that they are ancient remains; in Sibi they said some foreigners are digging around for old things but there is no gold or anything valuable in Mehrgarh; in Swat they are clueless about the stupas; in Nagarparkar, they have no idea about the hero stones; Mardan was nominally better because they at least knew Takht Bahi has something to do with Buddhism because Koreans and Japanese visit it as a holy site.

Revision of history and promotion of an Arabised idiom of religion was expedient. If the leaders then had not even anticipated the violence and bloodletting at Partition, they could hardly have imagined the current crisis that state support for religicised politics has brought us to. And once the dividend on its investment in foreign policy became evident, it set the track downhill. Can we still get off this track or are we condemned by historical determinism?

The optimism around the Yemen stand-off is because for once the state and people are in sync despite the probable opportunity costs. But we are still far from stocktaking on state and citizenship’s relation to religion, what it means to be Pakistani, and what national interest should mean. That notion is as distorted and ossified as the national emblem, as removed from its natural moorings as our history. The future of our past seems bleak. The future of the present is inextricably tied to it.

The writer is a researcher and consultant.

nazishbrohi.nb at

Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi


The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.