Ethnic diversity and challenges of Nation building in Pakistan

We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams. – Jimmy Carter.

After the Second World War, most of the post-colonial multi-ethnic states have faced ethnically driven problems in one form or the other. Pakistan, as well, is no exception in this regard. It is unfortunate that after decades of independence the people of Pakistan, deeply divided and traumatised, are still groping for a national identity. Sub-nationalities still continue to supersede the broader version of nationalism and the legitimacy of Pakistaniat remains volatile until now. The history of Pakistan sketches a dismal portrait of how ethnic tensions have continued to stress the sociology of the country. Seven decades of independence can better be termed an epoch full of paradoxes and achievements; misadventures and accomplishments. From the dismemberment of the country to the rise of Muhajir Nationalism; from the Balochistan Liberation Army to the slogans of Sindhu Desh, the country has witnessed multifarious problems of crucial to intricate nature germinating from its ethnic diversification. Adopted policies widened the gulf between different ethnicities which backfired and resulted in the break-up of the country. Attempts were made to unify the people with little to no success. The country is still facing low-key ethnic tensions and the question of nation-building remains unanswered till date.

Understanding Nation-Building

Nation-Building in a multi-ethnic state implies the process of defining and developing an integrated ideology and society based on the commonalities among different ethnicities in that state. Common past, cultural or religious heritage, goals, ethos, language and a shared geography can become the components of a national identity. National Integration, in that sense, is the manifestation of close cooperation among these ethnicities and provinces or units of the state. Almost every multi-ethnic country has experienced some sort of ethnic dissonance. However, it warrants to mention here that ethnic assortment in itself is not the cause of the contention, but the nature of diversity vis-à-vis the manner and sociological structure of a state that how it accommodates different ethnicities. In fact, about 80% of states around the world are multi-ethnic.

The Botched-up Endeavours of Nation-Building in Pakistan.

Historically there have been three common grounds where most of the governments – elected and non-elected – have attempted to draw a common national identity and to bring the masses together: religion, repression and ‘the rivalry’. Religion has been a common tool used by the state to weld the breaks among different ethnicities of Pakistan. It was during the Zia-ul-Haq years when we witnessed a manifest indoctrination of ‘Islamic Nationalism’. Use of repression as a means to unify the people and suppress separatist movements has also been adopted many a time the result of which we witnessed into dismemberment of the country in 1971. The third formula is the Indian enmity. Be it our school curriculum or the nuclear doctrine, anti-Hindu sentiments have always been used to stress Pakistan’s legitimacy and unity. But all these efforts have remained distant from achieving the anticipated results against more intensified movements of ethno-territorial and ethno-lingual alienations.

Provincialism and Ethnocentrism: Evils Inbound.

 “If you want to build up yourselves into a nation, for God’s sake give up this provincialism.” – March 1948, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, unequivocally, declared provincialism to be an antigen for a multi-ethnic nation. Provincialism in political jargon implies the concern for one’s own province or region at the expense of national unity. Demands for excessive provincial autonomy, undue provision of resources and the breach of constitutionalism in the pursuit of individual gains by the units are some of the manifestations of provincialism. Ethnocentrism, on the other hand, is a natural proclivity of human psychology while an overt and radical manifestation of ethnocentrism implies the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own ethnicity. The ethnocentric sentiments among different ethnicities have also slowed down the nation-building evolution in the country. The ethnocentric attitude of West Pakistan was one of the major social causes of the 1971 split. It has been one of the driving factors behind the separatist movements in Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh. There are several driving factors promoting ethnocentric dynamics in Pakistan. For their political motives also politicians have often tried to project regional and ethnic sentiments among people.

The history of the country corroborates the notion that fabrication and repressive dissemination of nationalism has to ultimately backfire.

Ethnic Conflicts: Avenue to Disintegration

In January 2018 a mob of masked students entered Punjab University in search of Pashtun students and beat a student mercilessly. In April 2015 twenty labourers, most of whom hailed from Sindh and Punjab, were killed by a Baloch separatist group the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). Ethnic violence has roots deep in our history. The 1980s ethnicity based violent waves of conflicts that erupted between Pashtun and Urdu-Speaking Muhajirs and between Sindhis and Muhajirs provide an explanation of how the country has remained plagued by ethnic conflicts and ethnocide. Ethnicity-based violence has always provided an incentive to sub-nationalities to defy and renounce the legitimacy of Pakistani nationalism. Such a state of chaos has seriously affected the process of nation-building.

Resources: The Rivalry Within

Provincial interests and distribution of resources – mainly natural resources – have always been bone of the contention among the units. Be it the NFC award or the supply of water, gas, and electricity, the units are always found at loggerheads with one another. The National Finance Commission always fails to bring a consensually agreeable formula. Resultantly, relative deprivation has always been an incentive for the under-developed provinces mainly Balochistan and Sindh to raise the hue and cry about being deprived of their resources. Population growth accompanied with resources scarcity has increased pressure on natural resources. This situation of deprivation and economic insecurity has generated a sense of marginalization and disorientation among the units. Under this pretext sub-nationalists, separatists and – even politicians at times – have been making ground for their demands of self-government, autonomy, greater access to resources, politics or power. The centre-provinces confrontation on resources distribution has been another source of disaffection. Provinces keep lobbying for an increase in funds given by the centre while the federal remains demanding the provinces to share the burden of increasing expenditures because of War on Terror, debt servicing and maintenance of law and order.

Imposing Nationalism: Bullets and Sentiments

Forceful accommodation of sub-nationalities only renders deeper cracks into a multi-national state. When sub-nationalities are forced to adopt another identity they, in a fear of extinction, naturally and vigorously re-emerge with more intensified ethnocentric sentiments. In Pakistan many a time the state and governments have tried to impose a well-orchestrated official version of nationalism the elements of which oscillated from religion to secularism and language to legends. Resultantly, it generated a fear of imperialism among the sub-ethnicities. The Urdu-Bengali and Sindhi-Urdu lingual tensions, the fundamentalist Zia-ul-Haq and secularist Musharraf years are the typical cases in point. Zia-ul-Haq tried to inject – a relatively extreme – Islamic form of nationalism into the country. Similarly, repression was unitized in the case of Balochistan when Baloch nationalists demanded autonomy during the Musharraf era. Nation-building requires consent and candid acknowledgement in a democratic manner. The history of the country corroborates the notion that fabrication and repressive dissemination of nationalism has to ultimately backfire.

But The Journey Continues

The verdict of the past 7 decades suggests that ethnic diversity has proved an anathema in the case of Pakistan. However, and fortunately, this journey has not yet ended. The unfinished task of nation-building can still be accomplished. It would require us 1) to identify challenges and responsibilities, 2) to acknowledge that despite all these ethno-lingual multitudes we share a common history, religion and geography, and 3) to understand the fact of our interdependence on one another. To accomplish this dream of unity we will have to resolve our inter-provincial conflicts and dilemmas, democratically, not compromising the interests of any segment of this federation. Adopt the principle of Islamic democracy in which there is no place for individualism – neither ethnocentrism. Snuffing out all the incentives of disorientation and exclusion, efforts should be made to mainstream marginalized segments of our society from parochial to provincial and national level. We will have to make Pakistan free from corruption, nepotism, poverty, illiteracy, parochialism and intolerance. Reform our political system by inducing professionalism and constitutionalism into it. Adopt unanimity in our national – both internal and external – policies and narratives. Become economically stable and self-efficient so that no external actor attempts to challenge our sovereignty. The task of nation-building cannot be achieved through government policies alone, it requires every segment of the country to participate.

The Sunshine Has Yet To Come

Pakistan is characterized by fascinating socio-cultural and ethno-territorial variations. Cultural and ethnic diversification can be a blessing – a curse as well. It can hold a state unified – become a cause of fragmentation as well. Tolerance, tranquillity and unity in a multi-ethnic state can only be achieved through maintaining socio-economic and socio-political equilibrium. Pakistan’s cultural plurality and open society can be sinews of its strength if only we, the people of Pakistan, adopt the principles of pluralism, tolerance and reciprocity. The journey that we had embarked on will continues to move; we have to make the way, we have to find the destination.

The sunshine has yet to come – Jinnah.

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Rehan Ahmed Written by:

The writer is one of the Senior Editors of the online journal The Geopolitics (TGP). He is a candidate of International Relations based in Pakistan.