On my visits to India, I am often asked for my views on whether Partition should have happened.
This question partly arises out of nostalgia – the longing for the unbroken motherland, the desire to travel across the border, the yearning to stand on the soil and breath the air that gave birth to our ancestors.
But the question is also party a euphemism that hides layers of assumptions and assertions. Hidden in it are several other questions and statements: “Aren’t you upset with Pakistan’s state of affairs? The nation is fragmented, at war with it itself. There is no national identity. Don’t you wish it was still a part of India, that Partition had never happened?”
The quest for roots
Back home, Pakistanis often joke among themselves that it is only cricket that can bring the nation together. In drawing room conversations, some will quip about the lack of national unity, while others will somberly discuss the need to craft a national identity by taking pride in indigenous traditions and practices. Some will say that rather than teaching children Shakespeare, we should educate them about Bulleh Shah and Baba Farid.
Others, though in the same spirit of creating national solidarity, will propose different solutions. Some will ask for Bollywood movies to be banned so that Pakistani cinema and artists can flourish and children can grow up without Hindu influences, while yet others will speak about expunging American influences that have been supposedly corrupting the nation and taking it away from its own roots.
This desire to go back to their roots is shared by many Pakistanis, though what those roots are is increasingly being contested. For some liberals and intellectuals, going back to the roots, could mean owning pre-Islamic traditions and histories from the Indus Valley Civilization, for others it manifests in religious appropriation of those very roots. Car number plates will read
“Al-Bakistan” and there will be an argument for making Arabic compulsory across schools while indigenous languages like Punjabi are sidelined as unruly and crude.
Children will be forbidden from seeing the viral cartoon series, Peppa Pig because the animal is considered “unislamic.” And committing blasphemy will become far too easy, because everything and anything can be construed as sacrilegious in a society bent upon Islamisising all aspects of life, from cartoons to car number plates.
Does all of this help in creating a national identity? It is often alleged that Pakistan suffers from an existential crisis, uncertain of why it was created and even more unsure of how it will continue existing in the face of growing threats, both internal and external. It is also argued that the country has a weak national identity, if any at all. National spirit, national pride and national unity are missing.
Nation = religion
Contrary to this, I would argue that the nation has as strong a national identity as its neighbour to the East, or for that matter, as most nations. In fact, Pakistan can be considered a pioneer in constructing national identity in the contemporary world if one broadens the understanding of what nationalism means today.
From Europe and America to India, religious nationalism is on the rise. Nationalism is no longer limited to patriotic spirit, of being proud of what one’s nation has achieved; rather, it is increasingly about who should be achieving and who is holding them back.
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential elections has been hailed as a victory of white Christian America. After decades of oppression, he has promised to give them back their rights and opportunities, that had for far too long been hijacked by those who don’t really belong – namely Mexicans and Muslims.
In Europe, the refugee influx, mostly from Muslim countries, has become a catalyst for the rise of rightwing, religiously inclined parties. Brexit – Britain’s vote to exit the European Union – was also inspired by the idea of separating oneself from particular races and religions that can pose a threat to British sovereignty.
And in India, what it means to be patriotic has increasingly become saffronised. The dangerous growth of vigilantism in the name of protecting the cow, religious indoctrination in textbooks and violence against anyone perceived as anti-national is alarming. Just as nationalism and Islam have been woven into a complex web in Pakistan, in India too nationalism is increasingly becoming synonymous with Hinduism.
In Pakistan, religion has always been politicised and embedded in the national rhetoric. The country’s raison d’être is the two-nation theory, which is premised on the separation of Hindus and Muslims. Soon after the creation of the country, it became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The swift action gave Muslims greater rights and privileges while largely invalidating the existence of any non-Muslims.
Today, the most popularly understood meaning of Pakistan is, “La Ilaha Illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah,” – there is no god but Allah – the same holy words that are used while converting someone to Islam. How, then, can a Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Baha’i or Parsi belong as much to this land as Muslims do?
The State has crafted one of the strongest religious-national identities based on the opposition of the other: non-Muslim and the infidel. The narrative is so powerful that the State often does not even need to step in to ensure its persistence. Mob attacks and violence against anyone deemed to be challenging Islam are rampant. And since Islam is seen as synonymous with Pakistan, it becomes all too easy to charge all those perceived to be anti-nationals as anti-Islamic and hence open them to all kinds of punishment, both by the state and the moral policing of fellow citizens.
This was also seen during the disappearance of five Pakistani social media activists, known for their secular, Left-leaning views, who mysteriously went missing in January and were soon labeled as blasphemers, which in Pakistan can be punishable by death. The lines between anti-state and anti-Islam are increasingly blurry.
Finding inspiration in this religious-nationalist narrative, other countries have followed suit. They have realised that while people may be open to hearing criticism of state policies, they will be far less likely to hear anything that goes against their religious sentiments. Infusing religion into national sentiments is perhaps the most sure-shot way of maintaining supremacy and silencing all dissent.
Anam Zakaria is the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians.