VIEW: Does Pakistan make sense? — II —Haider Nizamani

Courtesy to "Daily Times"

If persistence of Baloch nationalism points towards limited success of the Pakistani national project, the dilution of Pashtun nationalism shows that Pakistani identity can co-opt regions by making them economic and political stakeholders in a united Pakistan

Punjab’s nationalism is often subsumed in Pakistani nationalism, but there have been instances in the recent past when Pakistani nationalism did not serve the interests of various segments of the Punjabi elite, forcing them to resort to the narrower version of Punjabi nationalism. The 1988 elections for the National Assembly showed the PPP emerging as the single largest party. Provincial elections were to take place a few days after the National Assembly elections and Nawaz Sharif’s party, which was part of the ISI-assembled Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), stoked Punjabi nationalism with slogans such as “Jaag Punjabi jaag, teri pag noo lag gaee aag” (Awake Punjabi, your honour is threatened). The second instance was after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, when the PML-Q, under the leadership of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, put up advertisements in various newspapers alleging that innocent Punjabis were being killed in Sindh. In both instances, it appears the state apparatus was directly behind sponsoring these campaigns.

Such are the limits of the prevailing over-centralised state of Pakistan that even Punjab will find it increasingly difficult to subsume its economic and political interests under the rubric of Pakistani nationalism. If Punjabi nationalism is subsumed in Pakistani nationalism, Baloch nationalism is on the other end of the spectrum, finding little compatibility with the pan-Pakistani narrative. Here Balochistan may be dubbed the Kurdistan issue of South Asia, straddling across international borders between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. Of all the nationalist movements in Pakistan in 2010, Baloch nationalism draws strength from combining economic, political, cultural and historical grievances.

The Baloch nationalists refer back to special arrangements the region had during the British period, and consequently challenge the validity of the accession to Pakistan and plead their case for a sovereign Balochistan on that ground. Without passing any legal or moral judgement on the validity of this claim, I argue that in 1947 and the period surrounding it, a political map of the subcontinent was to be drawn with only India and Pakistan as sovereign entities on it, leaving little room for other entities to claim sovereignty. In May 1947, Bengali leaders, both Hindu and Muslim, reached an agreement in favour of a free Bengal with equal representation of Hindus and Muslims in the cabinet and services. Even Jinnah had tacitly supported it, but Nehru and Patel vetoed it.

The historical memory of being wronged in 1947-48 was further consolidated with the slapping of One Unit in 1955, which merged Balochistan with other West Pakistan provinces into a single administrative unit. The One Unit was abolished in 1970 and the nationalist-led coalition government was formed in Balochistan in 1972. By that time the province’s per capita income was solidly 40 percent lower than that of Punjab, its higher bureaucracy almost fully in non-Baloch hands, its literacy rate at a miserable six percent, and the province’s natural gas resources wantonly used by the rest of the country, bringing little prosperity to Balochistan. When the provincial government was dismissed in 1973, followed by military action, Baloch cadres opted for armed resistance.

Fast forward the clock to 2010 and the list of Baloch grievances now also include issues such as missing people, plight of internally displaced population, and the current ongoing military action. Baloch alienation is indisputable but the province’s multi-ethnic demographics, nationalists’ laying claim on territories outside Pakistani Balochistan, and their numerical weakness makes it improbable for the separatist movement to achieve its stated objective.

If persistence of Baloch nationalism points towards limited success of the Pakistani national project, the dilution of Pashtun nationalism shows that Pakistani identity can co-opt regions by making them economic and political stakeholders in a united Pakistan. In spite of the irredentist claims of Afghanistan, the majority of Pashtuns living in Pakistan have not warmed to the idea of a greater Afghanistan. Separation is no longer part of the Pashtun nationalist lexicon. Pashtun nationalism expresses itself in ensuring the rights of the Pashtun community all over Pakistan. When Karachi becomes the city with the largest Pashtun population, it does not make much sense to be seeking autonomy of only areas comprising Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Sindhi nationalism can be located somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with Baloch nationalism nearly fully alienated on the one end, and the Pashtun almost totally co-opted on the other. Lacking in electoral support, Sindhi nationalists make up for that by creating Sindh-wide consensus on issues such as opposition to the Kalabagh Dam and keeping Sindhi as the medium of instruction in schools.

Those are the reasons behind Pakistan’s failure to accommodate diverse national groups within its fold. Two competing explanations are on offer: one, what Feroz Ahmed calls a “structural” explanation, argues that “it is not that Punjabis have an inherent tendency to dominate others or to usurp other people’s rights. It so happens that in a country like Pakistan, military and civilian establishments have centralised power and Punjabis happen to dominate both institutions.” The second explanation offered by analysts like Farzana Shaikh in her recent book, Making Sense of Pakistan, argues that uncertain national identity is the reason behind Pakistan’s many failings including “distorted economic and social development” to drive “nuclear-armed states to look beyond its frontiers in search of validation...Uncertainty about national identity and the lack of consensus over Islam greatly affected the country’s constitutional and political development, (and) impinged the construction of a coherent economic and social vision.”

Both explanations are complementary and shed good light on Pakistan’s dilemmas. In terms of resolving the tension between pan-Pakistan nationalism and regional nationalism, two ideal solutions vie with each other. Mr Jinnah, in a speech delivered in Quetta on June 15, 1948, was “pained” to find what he called “the curse of provincialism”, and wanted to “rid” Pakistan “of this evil”. Provincial autonomy was a strategy of choice in pre-independence days because, according to Jinnah, it was necessary to restrict the British control. He then went on to say to the Baloch in 1948 that “with your own central government and its powers”, it is a folly to continue to think in pre-1947 terms. This ideal solution backed by the state’s coercive arm expects all Pakistanis to erase their Sindhi, Baloch, Punjabi and Pashtun pasts and become Pakistanis as defined by Islamabad. This, as history has shown, has not worked because the central government has seldom been a government that various ethno-linguistic groups could comfortably call their own.

The second ideal solution is to get rid of Pakistan, instead of provincialism, as the Bengalis successfully did in 1971, and some other groups are attempting to do now. I am of the view that 2010 is not like 1971, and Pakistan will not fall apart. I, for one, would like to see a Pakistan that is politically an ethnically inclusive federation, where Islamabad does not have the monopoly over describing who is a true Pakistani and who is not. Such a Pakistan will not come about through some miracle; it would require painstaking political bargains and compromises amongst the federating units.


The writer teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Canada and can be reached at