On being Pakistani

Viewing identity as a singular and static construct is flawed. The Pakistani identity is inescapably plural.

Morial Shah August 17, 2011
With 14th of August around the corner, festive fever is on the rise. Civic organizations, student groups, and social, electronic and print media are joining the swelling ranks of celebratory brigades. And that’s where some of the problems with ill-informed, obsessive nationalism begin. Have you been confused by invitations to ‘no ethnic identities welcome’ events? If yes, read on.


This past week, I received a few invitations for Independence Day walks and seminars. The proposition, ‘No Sindhi, No Punjabi, No Pathan, and No Balochi – Only Pakistani Welcome’ made them distasteful. Honestly, who’s left then? With the exception of a few citizens living in federal territories, most Pakistani citizens live in her provinces and adopt some form of local identity.


For over sixty-four years, Pakistani identity has been a thorny issue. Even without addressing the academic quarrels over Pakistan’s ideology or whether Jinnah’s Pakistan was meant to be a Muslim nation-state, a state for South Asian Muslims, an Islamic state or a state for all oppressed minorities of the Indian subcontinent, shaping dialogue on how we address ourselves as a multi-ethnic state is not easy.


When asked about his primary identity in 1977, Abdul Wali Khan, founder of the Awami National Party (ANP), said “I have been Pakistani for 30 years, Muslim for 1400 years, and Pathan for 5000 years.”


His reply adds perspective to the problems associated with assuming that one’s Pakistani identity must always be primal and singular. Collective memory, time and soft power tactics will help create the permissive space for dialogue on what it means to be Pakistani. Obliterating centuries old ethno-linguistic aspirations to impose an unchangeable identity will only foster separatist dissent. Bangladesh’s emergence after the failed ‘One Unit’ project is a case in the point.


Ultranationalists are fast to quote Jinnah’s views to suit their ends. In his reply to a civic address provided by the Quetta Municipality on 15th June, 1948, Jinnah said, “ We are now all Pakistanis--not Balochis, Pathans, Sindhis, Bengalis, Punjabis and so on--and as Pakistanis we must feet behave and act, and we should be proud to be known as Pakistanis and nothing else.”


True. But does it follow that Jinnah wanted every Pakistani citizen to forgo his ethno-linguistic identity? That’s not the immediate implication. Jinnah asks his Sindhi, Punjabi, Pathan, Baloch, or Bengali Pakistani citizens to give importance to their inclusive Pakistani identity and act as ‘equal citizens of one state’. Plus, his support for American, Canadian and Australian styled federalism for Pakistan shows the he recognized the sovereignty and autonomy of federating units and their peoples.


Arguments to the effect that ethno-linguistic identities ought to be mitigated because they create conflict are also largely unsubstantiated. Karachi’s recent urban violence, for instance, may well be correlated with the presence of different linguistic groups. But saying that these different linguistic groups are the sole cause of all urban violence is stretching the argument a bit too thin. Did the London riots, for instance, occur only because of different linguistic groups? I think not. World over - political, social, cultural and economic factors provide better causal links for urban violence.


At any rate - we must not loose sight of the fact that identity is plural, fluid, situational and context driven. The Pakistani identity of a Manchester United fan watching a football match between Barcelona and Manchester United is largely irrelevant. But during an India-Pakistan cricket match, it becomes much more relevant for analyzing behavior. Likewise, an individual’s Sindhi identity may not be the primary influence on his behavior or choices on Pakistan Day. Entirely different calculus may apply for Sindh Culture Day.


The bottom-line? Viewing identity as a singular and static construct is flawed. The Pakistani identity is inescapably plural. I ought to able to be a Sindhi, Seraiki, Syed, feminist and left-off center, chai-loving Pakistani with no contradiction.


On this 14th August, let’s agree to celebrate our unity by recognizing our differences. I’m going to join Independence Day Celebrations - as both - a proud Sindhi and proud Pakistani. Howzat for starters?

This piece was written prior to Independence Day.
Morial Shah A student of International Politics and Security at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University She tweets at @MoruShah.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Miss Malik | 12 years ago | Reply Great article. Why do some people fail to see that you can be proud Pakistani as well as being proud of your ethnicity/culture? I was once berated on youtube (yes I know) of all places by a Pakistani (who I later found out was a British Pakistani teenager hohoho) for not being patriotic and being an enemy of Pakistan for conversing with an Indian Punjabi about Punjabi culture! In fact we should be celebrating our rich heritage instead of ignoring it! I do agree with My Name Is Khan, I do admire the Indians for retaining their cultural identity and yet being so patriotic. an Indian Tamil and an Indian from U.P might not understand what the other one is saying, but they will love their country equally. I can be both Pakistani and Punjabi, unfortunately a lot of people including can't see that. Guess what? I like yousaf have many different identifies and I'm proud of all of them, I'm a Punjabi, I'm a Pakistani, I'm British, I'm Asian, I'm European, I'm a Woman and I'm proud of every single one of them, Speaking English and being British doesn't make me any less European, and speaking Punjabi/Mirpuri/Sindhi/Balochi and identifying with your culture doesn't make you any less Pakistani. a Punjabi or a Pathan etc will be the first one to fight and defend their country, and implying that because they identify with their culture too or they might even put their mother tongue (Punjabis speaking only Urdu? eeek) first is unpatriotic is not only uneducated, but incredibly offensive and insulting too. and I find it incredibly strange how while we're so opposed to being proud of our heritage, yet we're happy to identify ourselves with different castes (which are anti-Islam btw). But yeah, you can't call yourself a Sindhi, but you can be a Pakistani Rajput!
Haider | 12 years ago | Reply Great Article Morial! But unfortunately this article is beyond the understandings of the vast majority of educated and uneducated Pakistanis. As witnessed by the comments this article has received. Anyways, keep up the good work, one day our fellow Pakistanis will hopefully wake up and understand. Best wishes.
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