Saturday, August 15, 2009

17 crore dillon ki shanaakht

Distinguished economist and historian Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence was a very timely book. Published in 2006, it came just a few years after George W. Bush fashioned himself as a trigger-happy Christian crusader and launched his War on Terror. The world in those days was seen mostly through Samuel Huntington's clash of civilization lens and the "Western civilization" and "Muslim civilization" were considered in a most fundamental way to be mutually exclusive and mutually antagonistic.

Sen's point was simple. It is fallacious to categorize people solely by religious affiliation. To see the world only as a federation of religions is to overlook the individual's countless other identities. Sen enumerates some of his own as "an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights” (19) and so on. The insistence on the primacy of one identity, may it be racial or religious, is an old tactic of hate-mongers from Nazis to Hutu and Tutsi militants to Islamic fundamentalists. To ignore the plethora of other identities is to forego all the ways in which people can relate across the so-called civilizational divide. What Sen says is nothing new. In fact it is extremely obvious. But in all the acrimony that followed the 9/11 attacks, many had lost sight of this simple truth.

When I picked up Identity and Violence last week to reread it, it hit me how far the world has come since Bush's disastrous first term as president. The war on terror paradigm and Samuel Huntington are now in the junk pile of history. Obama, a man with astoundingly diverse identities (a biracial American with Kenyan and British heritage, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, a Christian, a man married to an African American woman, a lawyer, a technophile, a community organizer and so on) is now at the helm of the world. The talk of the day is not war but rapprochement and reconciliation with the Muslim world. It is now obvious to most that Muslims do not inevitably sympathize with terrorists. And with the recent national consensus behind the army operation in Swat, this has become obvious to Pakistanis about themselves too. But in a lot of ways, Sen's book is still extremely relevant today when our Pakistani identity remains narrowly defined as the negative of the West, India and other exogenous and endogenous perceived threats.

These past few weeks, in the wake of Gojra, Pakistanis have been immersed in serious debate about our identities. The problem is an old one and with our country's 62nd anniversary over yesterday, we are not much closer to effecting a solution. I say effecting because the solution has been apparent for a long time, even as early as 1947. It will not do to straitjacket 170 million individuals with an artificially fashioned national identity (male, Urdu-speaking, Muslim). Pakistani identity must be broadened to include the varied identities of its citizens. Pakistan should not seek to define its citizens but its citizens should define what it means to be Pakistani.

In this respect there has been a lot of criticism of the Blasphemy Law of late. Some commentators are calling not only for its repeal but also for a secular Pakistani state. Secular government gets a lot of flak in Pakistan as being anti-religion but in reality it only means that the state is religion-blind, treating citizens of all religious identities equally and protecting the religious freedom of everyone.

Many advocates of a secular state quote Quaid-e-Azam's inaugural speech to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly. But the most impassioned and articulate defense of secular government in Pakistan remains Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s who was the opposition leader of our first Constituent Assembly. In his speech during the Objectives Resolution debate of March 1949 Chattopadhyaya said:

"Let us eliminate the complexes of majority and minority. Let us treat citizens of Pakistan members of one family and frame such a constitution as may not break this tie so that all communities may stand shoulder to shoulder on equal footing in time of need and danger. I do not consider myself as a member of the minority community. I consider myself as one of seven crores of Pakistanis. Let me have to retain that privilege.

In other words, Chattopadhyaya envisioned a state where Pakistani identity was not defined to exclude non-dominant religious groups.

But a secular state while going a long way in solving our identity crisis will probably not go far enough. What is really needed is a redefinition of pakistaniat not just in the constitution but also in the minds of the Pakistani people. Here once again the state has to take responsibility because its textbooks are the widest and most effective method of disseminating an understanding of the Pakistani identity.

Those marginalized by the narrow definition of pakistaniat (women and individuals belonging to non-dominant linguistic, ethnic and religious groups) must have their identities accommodated in the larger Pakistani identity. What our schools and textbooks should teach our children is that (A) citizens of our country have multifarious identities that must all be respected and celebrated and (B) that these identities are in total harmony with being Pakistani. A Hindu, a woman, an English speaker, an atheist, a Brahui speaker are all equally Pakistani.

The monolithic way in which history is taught must be changed. Pakistan’s history is not a straight line from Muhammad bin Qasim to the Mughals to the Muslim League and then Pakistan. The importance of non-Muslim rulers needs to be highlighted, as do the regional histories of the provinces and the contributions made to our history, thought and culture by dissidents and also intellectuals and politicians opposed to the League (like Nehru and Gandhi). A history that is more representative of the histories of our people and less ideologically oriented against India and the West and towards the idea of a Muslim nation will go a long way in freeing our national identity and bringing it into line with the identities of our people

A few months back, the Citizens Archive of Pakistan organized the Shanaakht festival to highlight Pakistan’s diversity. It was just the kind of inclusionary event that we need to see but the slogan, “17 crore dillon ki aik shanaakht”, was somewhat disappointing in its implication that we are all Pakistanis despite of our differences rather than because of them. A much more appropriate maxim in my opinion would be: “17 crore shanaakht; aik Pakistan.”


Saba said...

I have nothing to say except that I agree with you whole heartedly. Have you read Aqeel Bilgrami's paper entitled "What is a Muslim?" He explores the complexity of defining one's identity, especially in South Asia.

Keep the inspirational work up!

Shayan_R said...

no, i actually havent. but sen talks abt it a lot. link?