By Rafia Zakaria
March 07, 2012
IT was supposed to be easy; it had been spelled out in lengthy treatises and frequent speeches in the heady, feverish years leading up to 1947.
Pakistan was to be a modern Muslim state, a country where democratic and Islamic values gelled to produce a polity that felt no discomfort with either its religious identity or its democratic one.
The generation that awaited it with hushed anticipation saw no confusion in the recipe; their leaders were the likes of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Maulvi Chiragh Ali, Nazir Ahmed — brave men with a clear vision for South Asian Muslims.
They had fought the decrepit ignorance that kept Muslims submerged in old ways in the name of tradition; they believed in the necessity of making inroads with modern education and scientific knowledge. The modern state they pined for in those early and middling decades of the 19th century did not yet exist, but they could see it, imagine it with great accuracy as the repository of free minds that would engage the novel, promote the revolutionary.
In the balmy August of 1947 the probable became a reality and Pakistan was created. With its birth the hybrid of a modern religious identity and robust respect for pluralism had to be put in motion.
As many of that dwindling generation would remember, those were euphoric times when even the massive tragedies of trains full of bodies and bloodied neighbourhoods could not extinguish the hopefulness of those embracing a new nation. Where first there had been only an idea, there was now a country on the map. With the founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the men and women who had devoted their lives to a vision set about making it real.
Much has been said about the post-Partition years and the idea of Pakistan that guided them. Critical historians have pointed out the structural challenges faced by the nascent nation, the dithering bits of administrative incapacity and the disconnected ends of British bureaucracy that were handed to Pakistan.
Others have pointed to the catastrophes — a dying Jinnah leaving a newborn nation without a leader and menacing neighbours at the borders always willing to pounce at the tiniest chinks in the country’s newly grown armour.
The new Pakistan was indeed vulnerable, both in terms of resources and leadership. There was, however, another, less-noticed affliction waiting in the shadows.
The idea of Pakistan as coined by the reformist Muslims who fought for Pakistan and took on the task of organising South Asian Muslims were informed by a distinctly South Asian idea of modernity. Their consciousness of being Muslim relied on their experience of being a minority ruled by a foreign power.
While they realised that they would be a majority in the new nation, this was an abstract idea, not an experienced one. Their own lives were lived in a state where a democracy unmediated by the law would leave them outnumbered and vanquished.
The South Asian recipe for developing a hybrid of Muslim identity and democratic governance relied on the use of the law as safeguarding the interests of those who could never win at the ballot box; having been the ‘little guy’ for long, they now sought protection for the underdog. For them, Islam was part of a political identity, deserving requisite space in the political sphere, but never a means of exclusion.
The assault on this Pakistani identity stemmed not only from the mediocre realities of governance against the passion of revolution. It came also from two distantly related realities of the new Pakistan.
The first was demographic; while the Muslims who migrated to Pakistan brought with them the memory of having been a minority, many of those that welcomed them remembered only the brute injustice of being a Muslim majority ruled by an imperial power.
If the newcomers, remembering the slights they had felt in a united India where they had been outnumbered, wanted to take care to create a tolerant Pakistan, those awaiting them, finally freed from the yoke of imperial rule, wished now for their chance at making the rules and being the boss.
A second assault came from the location of the new Pakistan and in upcoming decades its emergence as a labour-exporting nation. If the ideologues of Pakistan had looked around and within themselves and had been intellectually rooted in South Asia, the men leading Pakistan in the first 50 or so years of its creation looked to the Middle East.
As memories of Partition waned, being Pakistani began to mean being a lesser Muslim — the plural religious landscape of South Asia becoming a taint on purity. The Zia years made this burgeoning crisis of authenticity visible and reimagined the Pakistani identity as one whose central tragedy was not being Arab.
The wounds deepened as economic pressures in the 1980s and 1990s sent hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They returned with stereos, VCRs and a robust hatred for themselves; in their migrant logic being Muslim and being Arab became intertwined.
Working on construction sites and as cab drivers in Dammam and Riyadh, they learned from their Arab bosses’ oil-fuelled exchanges with modernity that skyscrapers and Ferraris were permissible but women’s rights and democratic governance were not. The current crisis of identity of Pakistanis today, a long 65 years after the triumph of Independence, is a product of this historical trajectory which discarded indigenous South Asian ideas of modernity developed during the Independence movement for a hodge-podge of inferiorities brought home by would-be scholars and expatriate workers yearning to be Arab.
If the first ideas of being Pakistani had been erected on a moment of achievement and a defeat of British imperialism, this second is submerged in inadequacy and servility and in self-hatred in which being Pakistani means being always less and always wanting.
The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi