Written By: Nadeem F. Paracha
Though created in 1947 as an independent Muslim-majority country, Pakistan is a land of some stunning geographical and cultural diversities. The country’s state institutions and constitution encourage the harnessing of cultural, religious and sectarian diversities as a single sovereign unit based on certain historical commonalities.
Pakistan’s constitution provides space to the land’s various ethnic groups to democratically contribute in the process of state-building according to their own distinct cultural and ethnic mores.
This diversity, however, has also been a cause of discord; especially during initial decades after independence a single, monolithic idea of nationhood was constructed by the state and then attempted to be imposed upon a diverse population without a democratically attained consensus.
But over the decades, various democratic experiments have been rather successful in at least initiating the importance of yoking together a consensual concept of nationhood built from the unique economic, cultural and political genius derived from within the country’s various groups.
During the 1946 provincial and national elections in India that were held under British rule to determine its future in the region, the All India Muslim League (AIML) was advocating the creation of a separate Muslim-majority state. But what gets missed today is the fact that men such as the charismatic president of the AIML, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had been envisioning a distinct country which all of India’s minorities could call home. For example, during its election campaign in Bengal, AIML leaders often spoke of a separate country which would have a Muslim majority but where India’s other minorities such as Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Christians too would be equal citizens, enjoying the same rights as the Muslims.
This narrative saw the minorities of India as being under the threat of a possible upper-caste Hindu majority once the British had left. This account also attempted to appeal to the sentiments of lower-caste Hindus and was actually successful in making a number of them (in the Bengal) to not only vote for AIML but also join the party!
AIML’s manifesto for the 1946 election claimed that a Muslim-majority state (or a state constructed by a minority community in India) was inherently more equipped to appreciate religious plurality, harmony and diversity than a state dominated by a large Hindu majority. It envisaged AIML’s idea of the state as something that had a soul. According to the manifesto, the state in the suggested Muslim-majority country ‘will be the alter-ego of the national being, and in good time the two would merge to form an ordered and conflict-free society.’
So in all likelihood, Mr. Jinnah was already anticipating a diverse country where interaction and engagement between a Muslim majority and other faiths in various economic, political and cultural spheres would be able to construct a dynamic society and state.
But, of course, once a minority became a majority in the new country, sectarian, sub-sectarian and ethnic differences came to the fore. And the intensity of these divisions was such that the nascent and inexperienced state of Pakistan fumbled badly to address the issue. It attempted to hastily create a national identity squarely based on a synthetic and monolithic paradigm of nationhood which ended up creating further fissures based on ethnicity and sects.
The idea was noble but the solution was cosmetic and the results, drastic. Indeed the country had to be kept intact as a single nation, but the state’s idea of this singularity only managed to offend and alienate various distinct groups. This resulted in episodes such as the 1971 tragedy and the eventual emergence of religious militancy, which, from the 1980s onwards, hijacked the faith-based dimensions of Pakistan’s nationalism and molded them into meaning a land which was to be forcibly dominated by an intransigent idea of Pakistan’s majority faith.
But despite the fact that the country lost its eastern wing (East Pakistan) in 1971 and then became extremely introverted and even myopic about how it saw itself as a Muslim-majority state, things in this respect actually began to straighten themselves out.
From the mid-2000s the state and government began to gradually return to the narrative of the ‘modernist Islam’ of the founders that had begun to erode in the 1970s and was replaced by an entirely reactive one from the 1980s onward. But the new narrative is more pragmatic than ideological. It is still very much a work-in-progress. It maintains that to make Pakistan an important economic player in the world, certain radical steps are necessary. These steps include the proliferation of free market enterprise and foreign investment, which, in turn, requires Pakistan to change its internal and external policies and crackdown on anything threatening the erosion of local and international economic confidence.
Optimists have already predicted that Pakistan is well on its way to pull itself out of the quicksand which it created and then fell into; whereas the skeptics have advised caution. They say it is just too early to predict anything conclusive because the mountain through which the country is now trying to drill a tunnel, has been piling upwards for over 30 years now.
Former Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, who took over as the country’s military chief during the third Nawaz Sharif government in 2013, clearly attempted to promote a more temperate outlook within the armed forces; or a point of view articulated to free the state’s war against religious militancy from any confusion which can arise in a soldier’s mind about an enemy that overtly uses religious symbolism and rhetoric.
General Raheel’s command signaled a shift on multiple fronts, gradually steering the military’s ideological narrative from the right to a more centrist disposition. It’s still a volatile undertaking because it is attempting to phase out a narrative that emerged in the 1980s and was then allowed to compound for various reasons.
Included in this narrative is a new-found angle as to how Pakistan’s diversity is to be seen. Instead of clubbing the country’s various ethnic, sectarian and religious groups into a cosmetic nationalistic whole designed by the state, the state is now clearly interacting positively with Pakistan’s latest experiments with civilian democracy and constitutionalism to construct a nation where every group is encouraged to participate in the nation-building process.
Economics is to play a major role in this endeavour. Because if, hopefully, the gigantic CPEC project is a success, it is bound to result in unprecedented economic growth in the country. And the nature of CPEC is such that it would require some equally unprecedented exhibition of resourcefulness from Pakistan. This will make the state and government of the country to draw brain and man power from across Pakistan, giving majority of Pakistanis a sense of participation and belonging in the state and nation building process.
A future Pakistan is not going to be a discordant, alienated, and demonized entity rampant with ethnic and religious violence. It will truly become the Pakistan Jinnah had in mind: A diverse and progressive society driven by a robust economy and a cohesive nationalist impulse built from the unique genius of every ethnic, culture and faith that resides here.
The writer is a Pakistani journalist, cultural, critic and satirist. He is the author of a detailed book on Pakistan’s ideological, political & social history, called ‘End of the Past.’