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Why do ethnic identities scare Pakistan?




Even after the cessation of East Pakistan in 1971, our state institutions failed to realise that religion could no longer serve as a cohesive bond between ethnicities

Zulfiquar Rao @Zulfirao1

The recent emergence of the Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), and the insurgency in Balochistan which has been ongoing for years, have a direct connection with peoples’ disillusionment with the state and its policies. Obviously, the concerns of these ethnic groups emerge from their disenfranchisement and inability to rule themselves through their own local governments, under the Constitution. This disenfranchisement, is in fact a direct outcome of the centripetal highhandedness of the state institutions.

Traditionally, abhorrence for ethnic identities and provincial units has been attributed to the military’s dominance of the Pakistani polity, as well as Punjab’s status as the largest and most dominant unit of the federation. However, the truth is that this centripetal overreach exists because of how the idea of Pakistan was conceived, defined and articulated by the leaders of the Pakistan movement, especially from the late 1930s onwards, until 1947.

For instance, when the British Raj held provincial elections in 1937 under the Government of India Act 1935, which gave in for hitherto unprecedented powers to the elected provincial government, Muslim League had failed to capture the imagination of Indian Muslims and miserably lost these elections. While the Congress party formed government in eight of the eleven provinces of India then, including in United Provinces, Muslim League could not have formed the majority in any of the Indian provinces. Because Congress avowedly stood for a composite nationalism of Indians, it embarked on the Wardha scheme of education. Although it was Gandhi’s brainchild, the scheme was formulated by a committee of learned and educational giants of that time under Dr Zakir Husain.

It’s important to note that Muslim League was known as a party of Rajas and Nawabs, to which the Muslim masses were hardly affable. Jinnah’s own life and worldview was so different from the imaginations of common Muslims that had it not been for the role of Ulema, the outcome of 1946 elections for Muslim League would not have been any different from that of 1937


Among other things, the scheme envisaged an education system which was to be imparted in Hindustani language (a combination of Urdu and Hindi), free from religious indoctrination and revolved around appreciating the religious and cultural diversity of India. Muslim League saw this with suspicion, and formed a committee under Syed Mohammad Mehdi, Raja of Pirpur, which rejected the whole scheme as a conspiracy against Islam for it overlooked the importance of Jihad, promoted love for country at the expense of love for Islam, and that Hindustani would not be acceptable as Urdu was the language of Muslims.

Around the time these developments were unfolding Muslims of minority provinces such as Uttar Pradesh (UP), which served as the fountain of modern Muslim culture and identity in the Subcontinent, had realised that in the years to come they would not be able to continue with whatever rights and privileges they enjoyed hitherto.

Muslim League too had the most vociferous of its ideologues, not in Muslim majority provinces such as Punjab or Sindh, but in UP. It’s also here that most revered clerics of the two of the great Muslim school of thoughts in the Subcontinent; the Deobandi and Barelvi schools lived and influenced Muslim political thought. Barelvi clerics fully supported Muslim League’s politics, while giants like the Maulana Ashraf Thanvi and Maulana Shabbir Usmani led Deobandi faction too extended allegiance to Muslim League.

It’s important to note that Muslim League was known as a party of Rajas and Nawabs, to which the Muslim masses were hardly affable. Jinnah’s own life and worldview was so different from the imaginations of common Muslims that had it not been for the role of Ulema, the outcome of 1946 elections for Muslim League would not have been any different from that of 1937. It was for the articulation of the political aspirations in the narrative of religious injunctions that the masses could be attracted to the politics of Muslim League.

Sadly, though, during all these years the party and its leadership rather naively thought religious zeal imbued by favourable clerics will provide all the cohesion needed to transform the multi-ethnic populations of different geographic regions into one nation. Therefore, we can’t find an even tentative formula which may have outlined how the federating units and the federation would work once Pakistan was had.

This is why when we finally got Pakistan, we could not agree on what kind of Constitution was best suited for a multi-ethnic state like ours for almost a decade. To deprive the Bengalis of their legitimate right to have more seats in the Parliament, those at the helm of the state came up with the parity formula which turned all of West Pakistan into one unit. This not only alienated Bengalis but also the Sindhis, Pakhtun and Baloch; and created an everlasting wedge between smaller provinces and the federation.

Even after the cessation of East Pakistan in 1971, our state institutions failed to realise that religion could no longer serve as a cohesive bond between ethnicities, without letting provinces have autonomy and therein giving the people the right to rule themselves. Today, while most politicians have learnt this lesson, the deep state remain uncomfortable with the Pakistani people’s ethnic identities.

The writer is a sociologist with interest in history and politics. He Tweets @ZulfiRao1

Published in Daily Times, May 31st2018.

https://dailytimes.com.pk/246773/why-do-ethnic-identities-scare-pakistan/

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