The Pakistani Identity

This article appeared in The Dawn Newspaper Supplement on 23rd March 2013:

It is a cross post:

 ArticleYAAYasmeen Aftab Ali

Pakistan continues to suffer from its birth convulsions since 1947, unable to determine a common bond of identity, with other Pakistanis, across the board. To understand the dilemma, one must have a clear understanding of terms involved. The simplest meaning of identity can be defined as a distinctive character marking an individual, group of individuals, an ethnic group, a nation. Most Pakistanis however, remain confused to this date regarding their identity. Some measure it by religion, others by culture, yet some use other varied markers.  Each of these markers are used in exclusion of other elements involved; a fatal mistake.

The first seed of the split was sown when the speech of Quaid-e-Azam for 11th August 1947 was censored by Chowdhery Muhammad Ali. The only paper to publish it uncensored was The Dawn. Chowdhery probably did not agree with the Quaid when he stated, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed-that has nothing to do with the business of the State…. Even now there are some states in existence, where there are discriminations, made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days  when there is no discrimination, no discrimination between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.”

Little did Jinnah know that the identity that had emerged as a strength in the  pre-partition era would be damaged, molested and torn apart by divisions created by different vested interest groups. It was this understanding of a pluralistic society that gave birth to Pakistan; yet today we stand, in 2015, trying to piece together what exactly that identity is. The identity is not based upon religion to the exclusion of rights of those not following the religion of the majority. The excerpt shared above of Jinnah’s speech stands testimony to that.  Also standing testimony to this thought process is the Chapter of Fundamental Rights of the Constitution of Pakistan 1973, as does Article 19 that deals with Freedom of Expression and Speech and states thus:

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, [commission of] or incitement to an offence.”

The term citizen denotes every person holding the citizenship of Pakistan irrespective of the caste, creed or religion. If I may add: exactly as promised by Jinnah.  Freedom of expression is deemed to be a basic human right, that includes; freedom of thought, freedom of press, freedom to express oneself in arts, poetry, architecture, crafts, lifestyles, dressing, eating, culture, music, sculptures, professing one’s faith,  so on and so forth. Every citizen of Pakistan has the right to freedom of expression; also an integral part of the constitution, in line with Jinnah’s philosophy. Pakistani identity therefore, does not offer this gift to members of one religion while excluding others. Nor does it offer an advantage to one sect within the religion to the exclusion of another.

Some promote the theory that there are at least six distinct ethnic races in Pakistan ie the Pathans, the Punjabis, the Baluchis, the Sindhis, Kashmiris  and the Urdu Speaking. They opine that since these ethnic races have a cultural heritage spanning centuries, therefore the Pakistani Identity (whatever it may be) takes a back- bench and has thereby failed to develop. This, as put forth by them; includes not only cultural differences but also difference in language spoken by them. Lack of a common language base is promoted as a major dividing factor by these theorists.

Let me submit here, that nations geographically and demographically bigger than us, have had more cultural diversity in terms of ethnicity than we can imagine, yet they have managed to emerge as one nation. One such example is the US. The US Census Bureau map shows the ancestry of its 317 million people of which Germans are by far the largest with 49,206,934 people. This is followed by the African-Americans. Then there are roughly 4.5 million Irish people settled in the larger cities of the US including New York, Boston and Chicago to name a few. The English-Americans are also sizeable in number. Those claiming a Mexican ancestry are said to be at 31,789,483 in number. Yet, this does not stop any one of them from thinking and acting only as Americans.

In countries having served time under colonial rule, English has more often than not been given a legislative status. Most African states for example, had English as their national and official language to curb ethnic disputes, which would otherwise arise from existence of multi-tribes and ethnicities.

We made the mistake of trying to impose one uniform language; Urdu from top down ignoring the multitude of local languages especially Bengali. A region where few spoke or understood Urdu. The result dear readers, was the 1971 episode. Among other reasons, effort at imposition of Urdu on a Bengali speaking ethnic race led to disastrous results. The educational policies followed by successive governments to create different classes based on language preferences namely the elite and regular (English language being mandatory for good jobs) has undoubtedly created a deep schism within the Pakistani society. We must move towards a solution, as it is high time, not remain bogged down by deterrents preventing us from achieving greatness.

To move towards that solution, we must first address the question posed; what is then a Pakistani Identity?

I believe the Pakistani Identity must be seen in a bigger context as opposed to being relegated to religious, linguistic, or similar levels to the exclusion of other elements at play.

Pakistani Identity evolved in 1947 as a political statement. It is composed of different ethnic groups and different religious groups; further sub-divided into different sects within these different religious groups. Pakistan was and is created for each one of these groups as clearly enunciated in Jinnah’s speech of 11th 1947.

No country can develop as a nation if it negates its component parts. Translated, it means, a Pakistani Identity cannot establish and entrench itself in the psyche of its people minus the identity of being a composition of all its multi-cultural and multi-religious roots. To deny the uniformity leads to a national identity. Acknowledgement and nurturing of sub- cultures making up these layers; does. Imposition of any form that is alien will not create an identity; it will only destroy the existing one leaving one groping in the dark in confusion.  Subscribing to the thought expounded above,  Hywel Coleman, an Honorary Research Fellow of Leeds, did a research paper for the British Council in 2010 addressing the weightage awarded to English Language competency in the Civil Service Exams in Pakistan. He suggested that applicants should need to demonstrate not only competency in English language but also the language generally understood by all; Urdu as well as competency in at least one regional language.  In one stroke of brilliance, Hywel told us that though English is necessary in today’s world based on inter-linking of nations, important too is to link Pakistanis across board under the ‘umbrella’ of Urdu understood by all. He has at the same time awarded equality to regional languages as well thereby emphasizing upon the importance of one’s roots.

The Pakistani Identity is not based on one aspect alone to the exclusion of every other component involved; it is multidimensional and multilayered. It is many things rolled in one.  The objective never was that once the goal of creation of Pakistan was achieved, Pakistanis would meet out the exact same treatment to their minorities as meted out to them in undivided India. At least, that was not Jinnah’s vision. Pakistan is essentially pluralistic in its identity; a society composed of different ethnicities, religions and cultures and as such must be given the environment to nourish, gain strength and grow, learning in the process to love and celebrate their differences. Belittling or nullifying these varieties of flavor will only damage the fabric of our combined identity. Yet at the same time, one needs to understand that all are intertwined as one under the umbrella of ‘Pakistan’ and this; defines each of us!

Multiculturalism is the underlying thread that weaves the Pakistani Identity and holds it together. Emphasizing on the citizenship alone will fail to gel people from different faiths and cultures as one. Accepting and celebrating the differences, initiating serious inter-faith dialogues and appreciation of cultural flavors will create a bonding.

Endnote: In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State — to be ruled by priests with a divine mission. We have many non- Muslims — Hindus, Christians, and Parsis — but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizens and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan.”(Jinnah  in February 1948 address in US)

The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ Her mail ID is and tweets at @yasmeen_9

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