US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California), the self-proclaimed advocate of human rights and democracy around the world, would undoubtedly maintain that the February 8 meeting of the US Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs was about raising a voice for the rights of the Baloch. The Pakistani government, however, has taken it as an affront to Pakistan’s national integrity and an unwarranted interference in its internal affairs. The government’s angry reaction, though laudable, is not representative of the general sentiment of the Baloch, who increasingly vocally, claim their status as a separate nation deserving of an independent homeland.
Interestingly, the roots of this concept of nationhood that the Baloch are asserting today, and the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent had successfully advocated in the 1940s, may be traced back to the 18th century German philosopher, Johann Herder. Unlike the enlightenment philosophers preceding him — who had believed that man, irrespective of his background, was a rational creature ultimately capable of progressing toward a single universal set of laws and values — Herder was of the view that the world was composed of distinct cultural groups, or volks, each of which had a certain spiritual essence (signified by their shared language, traditions and history) which rendered it a nation.
While Herder had focused on cultural unity, the slightly younger Johann Gottlieb Fichte, took this concept a step further to suggest that humanity, formed of discrete nations, each one bound together by a common spirit, may be arranged in a hierarchical order in which some (in his world view, the Germans) may be ranked as superior to others (the French). It was a combination of these theories that characterised not only the Weimar Republic (and subsequently the Nazi policies) but also spelt the demise of the Ottoman Empire (which had been a composite of numerous millets) and closer to home, provided intellectual fodder for the two-nation theory, which in a typically Eastern twist, maintained that religion rather than ethnicity was the binding factor amongst peoples.
Pakistan’s beleaguered 65-year history has, however, put this theory of nationhood to a gruelling test. If being Muslim were sufficient to define all Pakistanis as a single nation, then what is the explanation for the fall of East Pakistan, the Talibanisation of its tribal belt or the seething unrest in Balochistan? Although self-righteous explanations and scapegoats abound (the fall of East Pakistan is blamed on India, the Talibanisation of the tribal belt on the policies of the Americans and the situation of Balochistan on the greed of their own sardars), the fact is that each of these situations is, in fact, a result of the state’s preoccupation with perpetuating power rather than cementing national bonds, which has not only fuelled frustration and alienation amongst its citizens, but has also driven them to taking refuge in narrow ethnic identities.
For although shared ethnicity and religion may be aspects of nationhood, true national bonds in a modern state, such as Pakistan, may only be formed through rigorous implementation of rule of law, recognition of the equality of its citizens irrespective of caste, creed, gender, colour or ethnicity and most importantly, a commitment to impartial and expeditious justice. It is perhaps Pakistan’s particular tragedy that although it’s Constitution and its successive civil and military governments pay lip service to these ideals, these are all but ignored in matters of governance at the expense of its citizens.
I find this neglect particularly ironic and ominous: ironic because it was the very apprehension of such possible abandonment of the fundamental values of statehood on the part of an impending Hindu majority government in postcolonial India that had in 1947, justified Pakistan, and ominous because it has already cost us East Pakistan. In an ideal world, events in Pakistan would unfold as they do in history’s greatest epics: citizens of this country, learning from the past, would rise above their differences and their personal sense of deprivation to uphold the physical and spiritual integrity of their country. I am concerned, however, that in the tragicomedy that Pakistan’s reality often devolves into, the custodians of power and the citizens would each remain locked in their isolated shells of apathy, self-pity and self-interest and the integrity of the country would simply go by way of collateral damage.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2012.