Laundry list: In pursuit of the Pakistani identity

Javed Jabbar's book on national identity launched at literary festival


Hussain Dada February 03, 2019
PHOTO: AFP

KARACHI: Former information minister, advertising executive and activist, Javed Jabbar, tackles the tricky issue of what constitutes Pakistani identity in his latest book What is Pakistaniat? which was launched on the second day of the Adab Festival on Saturday.

The book, which identifies 30 positive and 11 negative characteristics, will be taught to members of the armed forces, the moderator revealed by reading an excerpt from the preamble before handing over the mic to Jabbar.

The incumbent army chief asked him to write the book, he claimed, which reflects on and whittles down the 60 strengths and 40 weaknesses Jabbar wrote about in an earlier effort Pakistan - Unique Origins: Unique Destiny? (2011).

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While acknowledging that due deference was paid to the wishes of the commissioning party in terms of 'what should not be there', he adds that the book tackles the issue exhaustively while drawing on his own varied experiences - not only as a politician but also as a communications expert and an activist.

Starting off with the question whether national identity can be quantified, he then shared his composite list for the benefit of the jawaans — in khaki or otherwise.

Broken down into five clusters, he started with positive aspects of the Pakistani individual's identity, including the one that draws on faith and being part of the greater Muslim community.

The country's historical value, as a cradle of ancient civilisation, is another source of pride for the individual as is the country's diverse religious heritage and syncretic culture.

On collective aspects of the Pakistani identity, the recurring theme was resilience and resurgence. Citing independence, Jabbar said that the nation was not only born resilient, going to war soon after, but the people have an enduring resilience that sees the nation triumph in the face of adversity.

He also cited the example of the nation getting back together after the Fall of Dhaka in 1971, which he added wasn't the failure of the two-nation theory, but a reflection of grievance against the state of Pakistan. "Bangladesh didn't merge with West Bengal [in India]," he argued.

The country's topography and terrain, its geo-political significance are other sources of collective pride, as is the country's democratic temperament and youthful persona.

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Having run a social sector organisation for three decades working in the field, Jabbar's argument that we deservingly take pride in the fact that an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis believe in moderation also carries weight. The aspects of charity and hospitality are commonly known and also find space on the list.

Among the evolving aspects of national identity, Jabbar cited having Urdu as Pakistan's national lingua franca. "Even though recent surveys revealed that less than 9% of the population have Urdu as their first language, it is understood everywhere from Karachi to Kashmir.”

He also talked about the cosmopolitan mindset of the people, the excellence achieved by Pakistani women, innovation of thought, an acceptance of ethnic diversity, and uniqueness.

The fourth cluster of positive attributes highlighted an assertive identity, even though it can turn into chest-thumping with unexpected outcome as Jabbar illustrated through an anecdote.

Pride in the army and the fervour with which we celebrate our national days along with blind faith and conviction of thought are other positive aspects, according to the book.

The book then moves to the fifth cluster or the negative or disconcerting aspects of the Pakistani identity. Despite the disturbing obsessive interest in politics dominated by talking heads on prime time television, the voter turnout remains poor, turning us into deeply concerned while at the same time apathetic individuals.

The distress caused by public sector education is identified as another negative, with society fractured at the helm by parallel systems of Madrassa, Matriculation and O-Levels.

Then there is a consistent unease over civilian and military relationship, apathy over decline in values with 'termites eating away at our ethics, and crude behaviour in public'.

Jabbar also bemoaned the oppression of the weak and marginalised, connivance in acceptance of corruption, as well as emotional volatility over religion, which also make the list of negative attributes.

Another thing that he asked the audience to look out for is people's propensity to accept conspiracy theories and blaming it all on the invisible enemy, which also results in and contributes to abdication of responsibility.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2019.

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