When I started research on my doctorate on the accession and integration of several princely states into Pakistan, my supervisor advised me to start by looking at the nature of princely rule in the states. Not knowing much about the states except a few general facts, at first, I simply assumed that they must have a lot in common with other Muslim princely states in India. However, except for a few elements in Bahawalpur, I found that the Pakistani states had a very different history and nature when compared with other states in South Asia. First, very few of them were ever part of any South Asian empire, except the British Indian Empire. Even Bahawalpur, the most eastern of states, owed allegiance to Kabul rather than to Delhi. On the other hand, the area of Kalat paid homage to the Mughal court only for a few decades in the 17th century and had, since then, been closer to either Persia or Afghanistan. Secondly, their rulers were hardly ‘princes’ in the Indian sense of the word. There was no opulence that is usually associated with the Indian Nawabs and Maharajas, few grand palaces and buildings and no major patronage of music or art. These kingdoms were primarily tribal kingdoms where the ‘prince’ was in close touch with the people and to a large extent was not treated as a superior, set apart as a God-appointed person — as was evident in the Indian case. That said, the period of the British Raj was a transformative phase for these princely states as they were brought in a very close union with India, under whose influence these states modernised and developed. The Raj also imprinted an ‘Indian’ identity, however tentative, upon these states as they willingly (Bahawalpur, for example) or unwillingly (Kalat) became part of the Indian discourse.
Since a large part of what is now Pakistan — most of Balochistan, Khairpur, Bahawalpur, Dir, Swat and Chitral — were princely states, the history and nature of these states has a bearing on the nature and identity of Pakistan. The fact that the princely states are a unique mixture of Central Asian, Persian, Afghan and Indian customs and traditions owes a lot to them lying on the main invasion routes to India, but also points towards their cosmopolitan culture — a strength which we rarely recognise these days.
Based on this rather mixed history of the region and the general yearning to be more ‘Muslim’, Pakistan embarked on an Islamic trajectory after independence. Contrary to general opinion, the Islamisation of Pakistan did not start with General Ziaul Haq but with the first prime minister of the country, Liaquat Ali Khan, when he decided that Pakistan should look more towards the Middle Eastern and Arab countries for inspiration. With that in mind, he changed the South Asian focus of the country, which had been patent in the region for over a century. This radical and uni-focus shift has left Pakistan confused and forlorn as neither has it been accepted in the Arab club, nor is it proud of its own heritage like Iran, while it has deliberately disengaged itself from its South Asian legacy. As a result, Pakistan has such a tenuous identity that it needs to be protected by the threat of criminal conviction.
The recent visa accord between India and Pakistan, I hope, is recognition of the South Asian heritage and linkages of Pakistan. While the actual results of the accord still remain to be seen, it is palpable that increased people-to-people contact will dramatically bring down barriers which have been erected for the past six decades and Pakistanis will now come to realise the other part of their identity. By all accounts, India is an emerging world power and we can learn and gain a lot from the country, especially in education, trade and technology. Our cultural links with north India give us an edge, which we must utilise for the betterment of both countries.
Pakistan, indeed, stands at a confusing junction of several civilisations and ideas, but our strength is not in promoting one and rejecting others; our strength is certainly in bringing together the best of all traditions we are a part of — be it Islamic, Central Asian or Indian — to create a better world for our own people and the people around us.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 11th, 2012.