Pakistan is not beyond repair

WASHINGTON DIARY: Lack of common societal goals —Dr Manzur Ejaz

Religious indoctrination did nothing except ruin the national identity and a collective consciousness to address societal problems. Now, Pakistanis pretend to be more religious but when it comes to self-interest they cling to the most primitive of identities

Instead of being a melting pot, Pakistani society is more like a sieve through which unity and tolerance travel before reaching the people. India, despite having competent institutions, has struggled to become a melting pot as well. As Pakistan’s sieve filters out nationalism and unity, what reaches the public is a schizophrenic identity with various divisive paths — much like India.

Pakistan has not been a pot in which different ethnic, racial or caste groups submerged to give birth to a single national identity or collective societal consciousness. Instead, it has functioned as a sieve with several filtering holes of class, caste, ethnicity, linguistic grouping, tribal allegiances, etc. A poisonous mix of divisive identities comes out of the sieve. Then, another extra-fine filter of religion is put in, making the toxic mix into a lethal killer of collective societal thinking.

From very early on, Pakistan’s ruling elite thought that a single national identity could be carved out by imposing religion and the Urdu language. However, within a year this ideological model started showing its destructive power when Bengali Muslims protested against Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s desire to impose Urdu as a required language. No lessons were learnt from Dhaka’s Shaheed Minar’s emergence as a symbol of the Bengali Muslims’ desire to preserve their linguistic identity. By the 1970 elections, it became abundantly clear that national identity could not be built through the imposition of religion. A collective mindset could not be created on the ruins of nationalistic aspiration.

1970 is a very important historical threshold for Pakistan. On the one hand, the emergence of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) created a movement that could create a national identity through economic and political reforms but, on the other, undermined itself by imposing religious dictates. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s manifesto and election campaign impacted West Pakistan in such a deep way that the voters rejected caste, tribal or sectarian identities in most parts of the country. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman achieved the same goal in cutting through the divisive identities in East Pakistan for his six-point manifesto. However, both leaders undermined themselves when they came into power in their respective countries.

In the 1971 civil war in East Pakistan, only the religious parties, specifically the Jamaat-e-Islami, helped the army on the ground. Therefore, after the creation of Bangladesh, the military got wedded to religious parties like never before. Ayub Khan was always ready to rein in the religious political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami. Maulana Maududi was sentenced to death and later pardoned on international appeals during the Ayub regime.

It is interesting to note that after Bhutto’s religious dictates, and later on Ziaul Haq’s theocratic rule, all the old divisive identities started re-emerging with a vengeance. Religious indoctrination did not create a mindset that could go beyond class, caste, ethnic, racial, sectarian and linguistic identities. As a matter of fact, religious indoctrination did nothing except ruin the national identity and a collective consciousness to address societal problems. Now, Pakistanis pretend to be more religious but when it comes to self-interest they cling to the most primitive of identities. Even villages, known for being tightly knit communities, have lost to narrow individual interests.

India has gone through a similar process where the rise of Hindutva led to the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat, honour killings, caste and all other divisive differentiations. Apparently, India has secular state institutions but it is not clear if they can stop the religion-created tornadoes of varying and conflicting identities. Such tornadoes have been hitting the Northern Cow Belt but they have started ruining the harmony in southern India as well.

It is very hard to compare an industrialised US and impoverished South Asia but there is an intriguing similarity. The US’ Bible belt, comprising the southern states, is home to religious extremism and racial differentiation at the same time. On the contrary, in the industrial north and west — where secularism is taken very seriously — the cities and communities are melting pots. Of course, home to all kinds of the world’s sub-groups, there are hundreds of identities but collective societal goals overpower them.

Pakistan has been drifting away from common societal goals with every passing day. Socio-economic changes brought about by commercialisation and mechanisation, along with the uneven distribution of wealth, may have exacerbated the unifying mechanisms. Nevertheless, the imposition of religious ideology by the state has definitely accelerated the process of disintegration. The irony is that the ruling elites and the most powerful institutions of the state are not prepared to recognise their self-created destructive system.

Sometimes it feels like Pakistan is beyond repair. Pakistan’s ruling elite is neither capable nor willing to take the Chinese or the western routes. But societies have a self-preservation instinct that can overwhelm present dysfunctional ideologies or identities. However, no one knows if Pakistan’s map will change or remain the same in this painful process.

The writer can be reached at

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