Bengali women in Machar Colony, Karachi | Bilal Karim Mughal
Bengali women in Machar Colony, Karachi | Bilal Karim Mughal

The study of ‘identity’ as an academic subject became a part of political theory after revolutionary changes in European universities, particularly in France, in 1968. ‘Identity’ replaced long-standing concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘constitutional state’ that had originated during the European enlightenment movement in the 18th century.

The basic premise of the politics of ‘identity’ is that communities and individuals defined by their ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation are ‘different’. They cannot be lumped together into a single class and their right to be different cannot be protected by a constitutional state that accords equal rights to all citizens regardless of how different they may be from each other.

The politics of identity assumes ‘difference’ as a celebration of cultural, religious and social diversity and wants it recognised as a legitimate source for political and economic categorisation. Such politics, therefore, calls for defending the rights of various groups who are ‘different’ from the majority around them. These minorities usually draw upon history, geography, language, race and at times religion for the construction of their respective identity narratives.

At the risk of making a generalisation, one may add that identity politics appears to be a counterpoint to a political system that overemphasises a single collective identity at the expense of individual identities or those of smaller groups within a nation. A set-up premised on a uniform national identity wants individuals and minorities to exist only as part of a collective and deems any bid by them to assert their difference as subversion. The states that operated under similar systems were ubiquitous during the Cold War era. Many of them are still around.

An early response to this majoritarian collectivism came from Indian thinker and jurist Dr B R Ambedkar (1891-1956) who is also one of the main authors of India’s post-independence constitution. “Unlike a drop of water which loses its identity when it joins the ocean, man does not lose his being in the society in which he lives. Man’s life is independent. He is born not for the development of the society alone, but for the development of his self,” he once wrote.

Ambedkar’s pronouncement is relevant to us because it untangles a social reality typical of postcolonial states in which centripetal forces are locked in a dialectical struggle against those striving to preserve their autonomous, different ‘selves’. Take, for instance, the case of Pakistan where regional, ethnic and religious identities overlap. As British historian Ian Talbot has very rightly pointed out, Pakistan has been searching for a national identity for much of its history.

It is this vexatious search that Rasul Bakhsh Rais scrutinises in his recent book, Islam, Ethnicity, and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity. His is undoubtedly a remarkable study, undertaken in a meticulous and objective manner.

Rais writes how various ‘identity groups’ within Pakistan subscribe to different visions of the state and the nation in an attempt to “establish [their] own claim to power in the structure of the state or in order to challenge the power of other dominant groups”. It is the question of power that the subject of identity is tied with in Pakistan, he says.

He also points out that a consensus among elites representing different ethnicities, religious groups and political entities is the key to forging “a common vision of the nation state”. Such a consensus, however, is starkly missing in Pakistan — something that has not just precluded unanimity regarding national identity but has also exacerbated multiple internecine conflicts within the country.

It may not be out of place to mention here that national identity does not always come about automatically. It has to be imagined first and then constructed. Dominant interest group(s) within a state usually adopt a top-down approach to do so. This explains why regional identities are generally seen as working at a cross-purpose with a national identity.

A necessary corollary to such a project of national identity formation is that the dominant group always aims at subsuming subnational groups and communities existing at the margins into a broad collective identity — a process that is often resented by minorities.

The central argument of Islam, Ethnicity, and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity revolves around the methods and tools adopted by the centripetal forces to weld together disparate elements within Pakistan to the chagrin of various minorities. The dominant elite here has discounted geographical and ethnic factors while constructing a national identity — making relations between various ethnic and regional groups quite problematic.

The champions of a single national narrative, with their simplistic prescriptions, went to such great lengths to impose a uniform Pakistani identity that they incited Khan Abdul Wali Khan, an exponent of a Pakhtun ethnic identity, into saying in the 1980s that he had been a Pakhtun for 4,000 years, a Muslim for 1,400 years and a Pakistani for only 40 years. If nothing else, this statement illustrates the dominant elite’s inability to resolve tension between the project of national identity formation and various other ‘imagined’ identities that regional and subnational groups have espoused.

This problem has been compounded by a centralised state structure which is seen as a prerequisite for the creation and maintenance of a centralised national identity. This twin centralisation has used religion to legitimise its identity-building project. Islam, thus, has become a leitmotif of Pakistan’s national narrative. The groups, communities and ethnicities that have tried to maintain their autonomous social, cultural and ethnic status – as well as religious minorities – have often faced suppression and persecution in the name of Islam. Rais, unsurprisingly, has devoted a whole chapter to discussing the role of religion in the formation of a Pakistani identity and the consequent conflicts.

The question of religion serving as a unifying force is, indeed, moot. Islam, in particular, has ceased to be a cement for disparate communities since its interface with modernity. It is true that various classification techniques, such as census and ethnographical surveys that the British colonial rulers introduced in the Subcontinent, gave rise to a religious consciousness among Indian Muslims. Yet, as subsequent history has shown, this religious consciousness could not cut across considerations of caste, sect and ethnicity among various Muslim communities living across British India.

Post-Partition, an Islamic identity in Pakistan led to the exclusion of non-Muslims from the polity and generated a discourse where competing versions of Islam clashed with each other for supremacy. This exactly is the reason why sectarianism has had such wide currency in Pakistan in the 20th century and continues to be a pervasive presence even in the 21st century.

Almost concomitantly, many thinkers and religious personalities have been propagating the idea of pan-Islamism. They have portrayed the adherents of Islam as a global community of the faithful that transcends national and political boundaries.

Both these ‘exclusionary’ and ‘universal’ versions of political Islam, though contradictory to each other, have been operative in identity formation in Pakistan. The first has led to a sunnification of the state and the second has embroiled Pakistan – and Pakistanis – in wars of faith not just within their own region but also in Iraq, Syria and even beyond.

Civil society is a vital component of a democratic polity. It acts as a bulwark against extremist tendencies and keeps a check on the mushrooming of illiberal ideas and elements within a society. Unfortunately, it has remained at the margins in Pakistan and its sociopolitical impact has never been tangible enough.

Rais rightly emphasises the role civil society can play in an ethnically and religiously diverse country like Pakistan. He states that its presence is vital for ensuring the rights of underprivileged minorities within a heavily centralised, majoritarian Pakistani state. A vibrant civil society, according to him, is a must for protecting those who, in one way or the other, are ‘different’ from the majority.

I conclude this review by stating that Rais wants Pakistan to preserve and promote its diversity rather than having to suppress it for the sake of a unified national identity. As America’s anti-racism activist and educator Jane Elliot’s has said: “We don’t need a melting pot in this country, folks. We need a salad bowl. In a salad bowl, you put in the different things. You want the vegetables – the lettuce, the cucumbers, the onions, the green peppers – to maintain their identity. You appreciate differences.”

This article was published in the Herald's August 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.