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Ethno-nationalism in Pakistan: beyond economics and politics

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, 23 November 2008

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The News International, November 23, 2008


Hollow slogans don’t cut it

Ethno-nationalism in Pakistan extends beyond simply a modernist urge to secure economic and political resources

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

One year ago, the son of long-time Baloch radical Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, Nawabzada Balach Marri, was finally hunted down by Pakistani security forces and killed, somewhere in eastern Afghanistan. It was alleged that Balach Marri was leading the insurgency that has gripped Balochistan for the past four years. Balach’s demise was hailed as a major success for the Pakistani state, while Balochistan mourned the loss of yet another of its sons.

On the first anniversary of his death, the entire province of Balochistan shut down. In late August, on the second anniversary of Nawab Akbar Bugti’s murder, protests were even more charged. Many Pakistanis — and particularly Punjabis — who have been brought up believing that Baloch nationalists, and Sindhis, Pakhtuns, Seraikis, etc for that matter, are funded by the Indian intelligence and are committed to undermining the integrity of the Pakistani state, saw the ’disorder’ caused by the protestors as yet more evidence of the insidious designs of the ethno-nationalists.

It is not surprising that there would be such a gulf of understanding between those located in the heartland of power and those in the periphery. But there is, and if this multi-national state is to graduate from its current state of dysfunction, it is time to recognise this banal truth. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Sindh was wracked by the slogan "Pakistan na khappe" and President Zardari has now made himself almost synonymous with the response "Pakistan khappe". But nobody is fooled.

It is no longer possible for our political leadership to convince those who have since long given up hope that Pakistan can mean anything more than cultural, political and economic imperialism of the most perverse kind by employing hollow slogans like "Pakistan khappe". The fact of the matter is that there is an urgent need to redefine Pakistan, and then apply this redefinition to the real economic and political structures that exist here.

For a long time it was believed that the key to tempering the radicalism of ethno-nationalist dissenters was to co-opt them into power. The argument was that so long as a significant enough segment of the educated and hereditary elite of Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP were given positions within the administrative institutions of the state, quotas in educational institutions and some autonomy over resource use, the fire of ethno-nationalism was extinguishable. To a certain extent, the hypothesis was borne out in the case of the Pakhtuns.

Of course, the state policy was always applied selectively. Before 1971, when Bengalis were a demographic majority, quotas and resource allocation on the basis of population were an anathema to the powers-that-be. In the truncated state, ideologues of the state make it a point to note that Punjab is the majority province and, therefore, it is perfectly reasonable that Punjabis enjoy as large a share of resources and jobs as they do.

As it turned out, the Bengalis decided enough was enough, though the state machinery made sure that most Pakistanis continue to look at the secession of East Pakistan as the grandest of Indian conspiracies. The co-option hypothesis remained popular, however, and with the coming to power of the ethno-nationalist National Awami Party (NAP) in the NWFP and Balochistan in January 1972, there was renewed hope that Pakistan’s identity crisis could be resolved. The consensus constitution that the first elected parliament put together in 1973 increased the optimism.

But then Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s populism took a nasty turn; the NAP governments were dissolved and a four-year military operation was launched in Balochistan. And it has been pretty much downhill ever since. With the start of yet another military operation in late 2004, things have spiralled further; and even if an almighty exercise in co-option was attempted now, it is quite possible that things do not improve.

What I want to suggest is that offering jobs and educational quotas to Balochs, Sindhis, Pakhtuns, Seraikis and others is necessary, but not sufficient to deal with the identity crisis that Pakistan currently faces; something much more substantial is necessary. A short digression into academic garb might help make my point clearer.

Scholars of nationalism have long distinguished between two major explanations for nationalist upsurges. The modernist view implies that nationalism is a function of material interests, and that people come together as ’imagined communities’ to secure these material interests. On the other hand are the perennialists who insist that nationalism is rooted in some long-shared conception of shared identity that transcends short-term material changes. Language, shared territory, customs, etc are some among many markers of this shared identity.

In short, I want to suggest that ethno-nationalism in Pakistan extends beyond simply a modernist urge to secure economic and political resources. It is about something much bigger than this; it is high time to recognise that Sindhis, Balochs, Pakhtuns, Seraikis, etc have a distinct culture that cannot simply be subsumed into some mythical notion of ’Pakistaniat’, whatever that may mean.

Among other things, it is simply ahistorical to conceive that we should all be ’Pakistanis’ and not ’Sindhis’, ’Balochs’, ’Pakhtuns’ or even ’Punjabis’. After all, Pakistan is only 62 years old and the nations that constitute it have existed for centuries, and arguably even millennia. The problem is that ’Pakistaniat’, as conceived by those who fashioned it, has been exclusive and threatened by ’Sindhi’, ’Baloch’ and ’Pakhtun’ cultures; accordingly, the former has tried to suppress the latter on the pretext that Islam and Urdu should be enough to keep us united.

1971 should have been enough proof that this artificial notion of ’Pakistaniat’ was not enough to keep us together, but unfortunately we did not learn our lessons. Perhaps our ruling class has understood how tenuous the official representation of culture has been all along and has, therefore, kept the ’Indian threat’ alive and well within the Punjabi heartland. Sindhis, Balochs, Pakhtuns, Seraikis and, before they left, Bengalis never took this threat seriously anyway, and do not want to do so now either. There is some hope to be found in the fact that things have changed somewhat in Punjab too, but not enough for real change just yet.

And real change is what we need. It should be such a change that the heroes of Balochistan are viewed as heroes not just by Balochs and other oppressed nations, but also by the oppressed classes in the Punjabi heartland. It is, of course, also important that the chauvinism that has crept into the politics of ethno-nationalists is arrested, because both sides of the divide must speak to each other if there is to be a brighter future. There is much to be done and slogans like "Pakistan khappe" do not even touch the tip of the iceberg.