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Islam and Politics ( 13 Dec 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

The Idea of Pakistan: The Fragility of its Nationhood


By Meghnad Desai

December 14, 2014

Hafiz Saeed has just said that Pakistan was set up to be an Islamic state which would implement sharia. He is impatient with the existing order which refuses to make Pakistan an Islamist state. Imran Khan is unhappy with the system for different reasons, but even he wishes Pakistan was different.

On the anniversary of the defeat of the Pakistan army in the war to liberate Bangladesh, it may be worth remembering what Pakistan was meant to be. It may also tell us how nations can ruin themselves. More than anything else, it shows how nations construct their narratives of nationhood, which reveal deep flaws in their history.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was an active member of the Congress. He was a liberal constitutionalist in the tradition of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and he also defended Bal Gangadhar Tilak in court. He was hailed as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity at the Lucknow meeting of the Congress in 1916. He got disenchanted with Gandhi’s launch of the Khilafat movement. He did not support the retention of the Khilafat just as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He was a modernist first and a Muslim second. He left politics and went back to London to practise as a barrister.

It was during this period that he developed his idea of nationhood. Across Europe, new nations had been born — Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia. These were homogenous communities in terms of a single language and a shared ethnicity. Nations, in this way of thinking, have to share some common characteristics. For the new European nations, it was a common language and a shared history.

Jinnah leveraged the idea of a nation but based it on religion. He wanted some safeguards for a minority faced with the prospect of living in a democracy based on adult franchise after the British left. He instead got a separate nation state, albeit a moth-eaten one.

Jinnah’s Pakistan was not a theocratic state. He was not religious and did not care for the ideology of Islam. The devout Muslims of Deoband and other seminaries were against the very idea of a Muslim state as it was contrary to the Quran. Jinnah wanted a liberal constitutional state with a Muslim majority.

Once he died, the idea of Pakistan as a nation began to fall apart. The majority of Muslims in British India did not live in what became Pakistan. They did not share the language or culture of the Punjabis, Pathans and Sindhis of West Pakistan. The latter did not regard the Bengali-speaking Muslims as their brothers and sisters.

Pakistan broke up into two in 1971. Even so, its problems have not yet ended. As a nation, it has lurched between democracy and dictatorship. There is no single narrative to combine the four separate regions into one nation. It has lacked a leadership which can fashion an inclusive narrative. This is why democracy is so fragile in Pakistan. The Army serves as a stopgap to hold the country together if no other agency can be found.

Since the rise of Islamism, it has also faced the internal subversion of the militants who want to convert Pakistan into a theocracy. This is why Pakistanis are at war with the Taliban in north-west Pakistan. But the Taliban do not build nations. They want their own fanatical minority to rule over the rest. But while the Army will leave the private lives of the citizens untouched, the Taliban want total compliance with their view of the right way to live.

This fragility of nationhood is one reason why all sides in Pakistan need India as an enemy and Kashmir as a cause to pine for. The nation has been an incomplete project for many reasons, most importantly because of religion. Even a monotheistic one does not suffice to bind together people who speak different languages and have different historical memories. Kashmir is a piece of land which all Pakistanis can pine for.

It is a distant dream and, more than that, they know in their hearts they will never have it.

It is hard to believe that a distant piece of land can bind a disparate land of four languages and regions into one nation. Nor will religion.