Ethnic Nationalism: Shaping Narratives

Most of what we see around us is a manifestation of identity – decisions resting on the foundation of associations; commitments and identifications clearing the haze on what is good, what must be done, and what should be endorsed or opposed. Identity, however, is anything but static and monogamous; it is carefully threaded through belief systems, religion and culture, and moves along ethnic lines, race, language, and social class. Movements, both progressive and despotic, often rest on the basis of identity politics, of ‘us’ and ‘them’ – offering critique on the historical injustices against a people by those holding the reigns of power.

Political campaigns and speeches have also used ethnic, racial, and religious identities as a means to create alarm and garner support for discriminatory policies. The London mayoral elections were probably the worst case of identity politics in the first world, with Trump’s campaign being a close second. The Conservative candidate, Zac Goldsmith played up Labour candidate Sadiq Khan’s Muslim identity, declaring it as a threat to London’s safety. Leaflets were sent in Zac Goldsmith’s name to homes of voters with Sikh and Hindu sounding names, claiming that Khan would impose a wealth tax on family jewelry. A letter in David Cameroon’s name followed suit, assuring that Goldsmith would keep London safe from terrorist attacks – implying that Khan wouldn’t.

Political parties in Pakistan tread on the same road, except that the political system responsible for forming policies for the nation at large is also guilty of only focusing its efforts on a certain people. In a recent speech when Pervez Khattak urged the government to  remove barriers and forces blocking the right of protesters to march on to the capital to join Imran Khan in holding the Prime Minister accountable over the Panama Leaks, he announced that he was being forced to become a baaghi (rebel), and that his party was Pashtun, and for the Pashtuns – evoking ethnicity as a means of mobilizing people, and threatening the dominant.  The MQM, originally created to tap into an increasing sense of Mohair insecurity, conveniently decided to ask for the resignation of Mr.Khattak as Chief Minister KPK for inciting provincialism.

Mr.Khattak’s statement was a field trip for news channels. While some questioned the audacity of the Chief Minister, others spoke of his irresponsibility in sparking ethnic difference for political purposes. However, nobody peered into the history of political campaigns in Pakistan, where linguistic and ethnic affiliations determine who the parties represent and how they win their votes – the PML-N being a perfect example – nor did anyone peel the layers of injustices against certain ethnicities and identities already forging feelings of negligence and difference.

Pakistan is rife with warring identities, and their clamor makes it all the more difficult to coexist in a nation divided along religious and ethnic lines. These identities take on the form of movements, some legitimate, while others are illegitimate and inevitably malevolent – fuelled by institutionalized discrimination, negligence, and a hatemongering society.

In theory

The concept of race is not simply confined to differences in skin colour. According to Silverblatt, race has mutated to an idea where “politically defined characteristics (like nationality) could so easily become inheritable traits” and exposes itself through terms like ‘American values’ or ‘British values’. In Goldberg’s understanding, thinking in terms of race is sustained through four features: ‘the rheotric of descent, claims of common origins, a sense of kinship and belonging, and the naturalization of social relations’. Erich Voeglin sees the evolution of race thinking into full-blown racism owing to its use as a political weapon bent on creating differences and legitimizing violence against the racialized other through a rheotric of national security and categories of us and them. It is through this that the rights of the racial other are suspended and violence is seen as an acceptable part of every day warring and survivial.

In line with this is Foucalt’s idea of the modern state requiring racism for its own survival propagated through the notion that the death of the Other will guarantee the safety of the self. It is by means of the innate difference of the other body in terms of his appearance, as well as his religious and cultural values in contrast with “an imagined, homogenous, and more civilized citizenry” that his inferiority is awarded to him. Once state of exception measures are taken, moral indifference or disengagement creeps in wherein a development of detachment from the Other begins through his exclusion from the boundary of law and basic consideration. Therefore, any violence committed against the Other comes to be seen as a necessary evil, which not only is “morally justifiable (right to do), but also morally imperative (wrong not to do it)”. This is further facilitated by a process of dehumanization which casts the group into a subhuman category considered to be immune to pain and “requiring forms of corporeal punishment different from those required by non-brutish populations – for their own good”.

In Practice

In response to a suicide attack on Lahore’s Mall Road on February 13th, claiming the lives of at least six police officials, Punjab’s law enforcement agencies set out to launch a province-wide crackdown on banned militant organizations. The Provincial Intelligence Centre of the Punjab Home Department issued a letter instructing police executives to strengthen security in different cities of the province. The letter went so far as to specify that “combing operations must be conducted in all targeted areas, particularly where the Afghan/Pathan community is residing” – sparking controversy regarding the racial profiling of Pashtuns, and a propagation of divisive politics.

Administrative officials in some Punjab districts allegedly issued formal and informal orders “asking the population to keep an eye on suspicious individuals who look like Pashtuns or are from FATA, and to report any suspicious activity by them”. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan took notice of this and flayed the Punjab government for stereotyping Pashtuns, and referring to the apparent racial profiling as a ‘grave concern’.

National identity cards of thousands of Pashtuns have been banned in Punjab, and hotels are given direct orders not to provide accommodation to Pashtuns.

The government is treading on thin ice.

It is no secret that previous structures, and even more so the current one under the PML-N government, have always been skewed in favour of Punjab – knowingly or unknowingly. It is for this reason that the Pakistani identity is often synonymous with the identity of Punjab’s middle-class. Provinces have more often than not revolted against the nefarious designs of the government pushing for Punjab’s dominance, and sidelining others. In December this year, chief of the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz highlighted the issue of tampering with the geographical boundaries of Sindh, after a proposed transfer of 17 Dehs of district Ghotki to Punjab. Letters were circulated, maintaining that Punjab’s hegemony had dwarfed and taken precedence over the rights of the people, whereby Sindh and smaller provinces had been left out of the construction of development projects as new power plants were being constructed majorly in Punjab:

“Sindh is being deliberately ignored despite the fact that the province generates 60 percent of the country’s revenue and holds the largest natural gas reservoirs”

The construction and focus on the eastern route of CPEC since it benefits Punjab, and ignorance towards the western route, also falls in line with the same age old policy of provincial bias, where jobs in Balochistan under the CPEC project are allotted to people residing in Punjab.

While these policies have often been ambiguous and under wraps, in the case of the recent racial profiling, they have surfaced for what they truly are – a Punjab-centric view of what Pakistan should and should not be. And in this case, what it shouldn’t be is a country open to diversity in culture, ethnicity, language, and so far as differences in appearance.

What this will do, and has done in the past is breed resentment in a society already divided along religious and sectarian lines – warring over whose version of Islam takes the cup. Since the idea of provincial bias, and being treated like second class citizens has already been a part of the discourse of Pakistan, if this isn’t reversed, further divisions will be fanned, adding fuel to the existing ethnic divisions – tilting it towards violence, and in favor of extremist organizations banking on and ready to exploit such situations in their favor.

The response has been this: warnings of ‘forcible eviction of Punjab people’ from KPK as a tit-for-tat reaction to Punjab’s intolerance towards Pashtuns, while others are pointing to the irony of a clean-up campaign against Pashtuns when southern Punjab has been dubbed as the hub of nationwide militant activity – a reality that has been hushed to project an image of a Punjab immune to attacks. One that has been difficult to keep on the QT, and is slowly being accepted by political circles.

Tuning out

Pakistan’s treatment of its lesser children, be it in terms of ethnicity or religious minorities, has always been oppressive bordering on unconstitutional. Historically, the way that the Pakistani establishment viewed ethnic expression and provincial autonomy coupled with decentralization was that it would weaken the federation. To counter this, instead of addressing ethnic nationalist demands, in terms of social, economic, and cultural autonomy, an Islamic identity was played up to dilute ethnic identity and demands. The root of the problem, Punjab’s dominance and over-centralization, was largely ignored. Thus, Islamic identity replaced, and superceded all identities.

Today, Pakistan is bearing the brunt of its blunder of promoting political Islam to intercept ethnic diversity – where the country is descending into violent struggles between an assortment of identities, one trying to dominate the other. What’s worse is that these differences are now institutionalized and reinforced by government officials, where seemingly innocent jokes directed towards certain ethnicities (a prejudice internalized, and encouraged on a societal level) could now manifest into suspicion and possibly clashes between people belonging to the same citizenry.

Not only is it unconstituional to arrest people on ethnic grounds, but it also begs the question: Does the social contract include all religions, ethnicities, races and cultures, or is it limited to the Punjabi, Sunni identity? Are the rest excluded from the picture, from the boundary of law and basic consideration?

Of all the answers I know, and choose to shut my eyes to, one continues to haunt me: it is increasingly becoming difficult to be a Pakistani.

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