On this July 4, we would do well to renounce nationalism and all its symbols: its flags, its pledges of allegiance, its anthems, its insistence in song that God must single out America to be blessed,” wrote Howard Zinn, arguably the greatest historian of the last century. Zinn goes on to postulate the question, “Is not nationalism — that devotion to a flag, an anthem, a boundary so fierce it engenders mass murder — one of the great evils of our time, along with racism, along with religious hatred?” Admittedly, the intention of Zinn was to be deliberately provocative since the abandonment of all nationalistic associations is neither possible nor desirable. Yet, his observation is instructive at some level, especially in the context of fragmented, fragile and constructed national identities.
Every 14th of August, there is an ostentatious display of our unique moral superiority, our status as divinely favoured and the reaffirmation of our oneness. Most of it is not peculiar to us and is common to most nation states. The distinguishing mark of our celebrations is the confusion which they might cause to a theoretical neutral observer on whether we are cherishing our Muslimhood or our Pakistani identity. In most cases, we do not care to make that distinction and to some it is impossible, since both identities are inextricably linked. Religious identities should be taken exceptionally seriously, however the question remains whether August 14 is the appropriate occasion to vociferously display them.
The 11th of August is sometimes marked as a ‘minority day’, in view of the speech made by Mr Jinnah of the same date. The white portion of our flag is meant to symbolise the minorities. There is insidious, hidden discrimination in that. In a democratic republic, with one person one vote, there are no minorities. Minority day is celebrated by liberals, driven by the noblest of intentions, but it cannot obscure the fact that it is unbelievably patronising. The fact that we have chosen to institutionalise the divide on something as visible and as symbolically significant as our flag is hardly a reason to gloat. The neatly demarcated flag is a manifestation of the non-fluid, impermeability which characterises the divide, hence betraying any slogans of oneness. The sharp divide is not an expression of harmony, it is exclusionary. As for the minorities, the grass (and the flag) on the other side is literally greener. The easy answer to this, however, remains that Pakistan is not a democratic republic, it is an Islamic republic and, as is customary, this should end the debate. This, at some level, is befitting for a nation whose official history begins with Muhammad bin Qasim and ends at Jinnah, pushing into oblivion Bhagat Singh and Raja Poros.
Equally problematic is the significantly larger, green portion of our flag. In theory, it is meant to represent the Muslim population. What remains vague is whose definition of a Muslim would be applicable? Exhibit A is the Qadiani community, which made the forcible transition from the green to the white. Now does the green represent the Sunni, the Shia, or the Wahabi, the Deobandi or the Barelvi and so on so forth. This, some may say, is nitpicking and hair-splitting, since all of them are Muslims. I agree, but some of the most influential and ostensibly learned leaders of the aforementioned sects would seriously and probably violently beg to differ. What is conspicuously absent from the flag are the Baloch, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pakhtun, Hazara, etc. To the uninitiated, a cursory glance at the Pakistani flag would reveal the existence of merely two identities, the Muslims and the minorities. Hence, the largely secular Baloch nationalists being murdered every day and the Shia in Kurram do not fit comfortably in either of the binary compartments on our flag. If the trajectory does not change soon, it seems that the third portion of our flag may well be red.
Another indispensable ritual of August 14 is a cliched discussion on ‘Is this Jinnah’s Pakistan?’. An aspect conveniently ignored is the glaring omission of Bangladesh from the map, which should make the whole exercise redundant. Nevertheless, admirable caution is exercised to keep the discourse within bounds so as to exactly replicate last year’s debate. All sides of the ideological divide claim Jinnah to be their own and articulate the belief that this is, in fact, not Jinnah’s Pakistan. For some, it is not Islamic enough, for others it is too Islamic, both sides quoting titbits and often out-of-context remarks to substantiate their particular version of Jinnah’s vision. The tacit agreement within the adversarial parties is to constrain themselves to Mr Jinnah’s debates, quotes etc and not allow distractions such as rationality and ground realities to interfere with the duel. There is no denying the fact that Mr Jinnah was a phenomenal statesman, and we owe a lot to him, yet to ascribe him timeless spiritual powers to guide us long after his demise is lazy and dogmatic. The social contract of Pakistan is not between ‘we, the people’ and the Pakistani state of 1947, but rather here and now. Even if it is possible to decipher what Mr Jinnah categorically believed about secularism or provincial autonomy, it is to be treated with respect as possible guiding principles and weighed on its relevance today. An inhibited ambivalence is to be found in any attempt to disagree with Mr Jinnah’s views on matters of policy and statecraft. Mr Jinnah himself would have detested any attempts at canonisation and deification. Furthermore, it is insulting to us, to rely solely on speculating on a dead man’s perspective, even if it is of a great dead man. Christopher Hitchens, once remarking about Kim II-sung and Kim Jong-il, said that the system of governance in North Korea can only be adequately described as a ‘necrocracy’. The false hysteria and the flag-waving on every August 14 alone can neither conceal our imploding state and identity nor stifle the process, at least not for long.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2011.