Contesting National Narratives of Pakistan


March 10, 2013 23:04 EDT

An exploration of the many contesting narratives of what or “who“ defines the meaning of Pakistan


“I know the minefields of personal sorrow and betrayals that don’t make it to newspapers. I also know of a Pakistan beneath these images that is rich with extraordinary possibilities.” Taymiya Zaman, “Not Talking About Pakistan.“

Sixty six years after the creation of an independent state, the idea of Pakistan remains deeply contested. The notion of a separate state for Muslims in India, later coined as Pakistan (or Land of the Pure), was first put forth by the poet-philosopher, Muhammed Iqbal in 1930 in the form of the two-nation theory. Iqbal proposed a federation of states comprising of Punjab, NWFP, Sindh, Baluchistan and Kashmir in order to maintain an internal balance of power in India. As the struggle for autonomy and self-government mounted in British India, so did the rift widen between the Congress and the Muslim League.  The Muslim League disputed the claim by the Congress to represent all people of India, while the Congress disputed the Muslim League's claim to voice the aspirations of all Muslims. Amidst increasing tensions between the Muslim League and the Congress, the two-nation theory culminated into the Pakistan movement under the leadership of Muhammed Ali Jinnah in 1940, calling for the division of India into two sovereign states—Muslim and Hindu.Although the idea of Pakistan had little following in the thirties, increasing acrimony between the Muslim League and the Congress, the volatile political climate in the lead up to British withdrawal from India and Jinnah’s resolve helped amass popular support for a separate nation-state and turned Pakistan into a reality.

On 14th August, 1947, Pakistan came into existence as a sovereign state comprising of West Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, North West Frontier Province and East Bengal (now Bangladesh). The partition sparked communal riots throughout India and led to one of the largest migrations in modern history. In the aftermath of the partition, a population exchange of over 14.5 million people took place across the borders, with 8,226,000 Muslims migrating to Pakistan from India and 7,249,000 Hindus and Sikhs migrating to India. The birth pains of Pakistan were far from over when the two sovereign neighbors entered into a protracted conflict over the territory of Kashmir. Then in 1971, with the accession of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) marked with heavy atrocities committed by the military, the need to re-imagine the narrative of Pakistan, now in the face of newly configured boundaries, loomed greater than ever.

Why is this relevant?    

Today, sectarianism, growing religious militancy and the increasing infringement of sovereignty by U.S. drones appear to be gnawing at the cohesion of the country at its seams. While many western commentators are hooked on the question of whetherPakistan can or should survive, the citizens of the country continue to defy the stereotype of the world’s most dangerous nation from time to time. In between headlines, stories emerge, speaking of love and courage, and of immense resilience in the face of adversity.

Internally, however, a tacit war continues to rage on what and, more importanly, who defines the idea of Pakistan. Billboards in the major cities of Pakistan rhetorically question: “What do you prefer? Jinnah’s Pakistan or the Taliban’s Pakistan?” To a certain extent, the country’s elite glamorously stride on fashion runways in an attempt to defeat growing extremism through their pomp and grandeur, all whilst the struggles of the middle and lower classes remain sidelined. And while the secular elites attempt to distance themselves from a predominantly religious majority, students protesting against the feudal oligarchy inevitably stumble upon the oft-repeated patriotic slogan: Pakistan ka matlab kya? La ilaha illa Allah (What is the meaning of Pakistan? That there is no god but God). It is a statement representing, above all, the identity crisis of a state that was predicated on protecting the rights of Muslims in the subcontinent. Now this cry asserting the ultimate sovereignty of God, in one context, seeks to challenge the despotism of feudal landlords and corrupt politicians operating above the law. In another context, it is used at the behest of religious minorities.

Contesting ideas of the meaning and the purpose of Pakistan are held across the class spectrum, and by different ethnic and linguistic groups, Islamic parties, the military establishment and the minorities. Amidst all the economic and political tensions plaguing Pakistan today, scholars have argued that the most potent issue facing the country is the absence of a unified national narrative. Others have called for the need to re-imagine Pakistan, outside the perils of myth-making and selective history.

So what is the narrative of Pakistan—past and present? Of betrayed hopes, or of inadvertent blunders? Of a pawn in a global war against terror, or of resilience against the odds? This 360º explores the many contesting and divergent stories of what Pakistan is—and what it ought to be.

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