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November 17, 2017

Pakistan’s Identity Crisis

Abbas, my Pakistani lab mate and I had taken a quick lunch break from our research and decided to go for the Shawarma on our university campus. For those who are curious, Shawarma is non vegetarian Lebanese food. It includes roasted chicken (or beef) shaved off a vertical skewer loaded with layers of the meat rotating slowly in front of a heater and is served with a Naan bread (optional), a generous helping of baby spinach, tomatoes, cucumber, pickled turnips, sesame sauce (called hummus) and the irresistible garlic sauce. Being nutritious, delicious, cheap and filling it is often the best indulgence the tightly funded international research fellows could afford. On a happier or a hungrier day the meal is complimented by a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Aside from Shawarma, Lebanon is also famous for its beautiful women. In this Canadian university, where one could bump into people of all races and regions, it was never difficult to tell a Lebanese girl from a group of girls.

However, I being from Jammu knew right away that the women of Kashmir, with their light skin, green eyes and sharp features can give them a very close competition. Anyway, the scene started the moment we entered The Barakat, the Lebanese food joint on the campus. For a change, the cash counter was being manned by the daughter of the owner. The young lady with her well sculpted body, luscious lips red from health, light brown big eyes, shining hair and glowing skin was a classic beauty from Beirut. Being married for about six years I had learnt the skill of camouflaging my excitement with indifference on seeing such a spectacular creation of God, but Abbas, my Pakistani friend, was unmarried and uninitiated and could barely hide his hunger. Most South-Asian, Afghan and Iranian men I met there are like him – ambitious, eager and dying to shed their nationality (and virginity). She greeted us with a customary “Hi. How are you?”. I replied, “Good, thank you” but Abbas could only manage, “Never seen you here before?” Even a dead chicken could tell from Abbas’s expressions that he was completely enamoured. The girl explained courteously that her school was closed for the summer and she was trying to help her father at the restaurant. Then she asked quickly, “What would you like to have today?”

To this Abbas said, “What’s your name?” She said, “Laila”. Abbas’s excitement broke all thresholds. “You are a Muslim?” She said, “Obviously!” Abbas reveals, “I am Abbas and I am a Muslim too.” Laila was perhaps born in Canada and had already seen thousands of Muslims in that country. So, meeting a Muslim man was not something she would write home about. Anyway, these were my thoughts. Laila was thinking of something else. She said, “But you look like an Indian”. She had obviously taken note of his brown skin and average south-Asian looks. Abbas fought back “No. I am not an Indian. I am a Pakistani. I am a Muslim and not a Hindu, you see?” While the girl was still preparing an expression on her face and an answer in her mind, Abbas threw a shocker pointing at me, “He is a Hindu from India. I am a Pakistani Muslim.” All of a sudden I felt like I was a lonely alien out there, a sentiment that I had never felt otherwise during my stay in Canada. The Lebanese beauty, however, closed the case with a terse reply – “To us, you are all the same.” She knew somehow that the customer will be answerless after this, so she got back to business “What would you like to have today?”

The Arab girl’s reply was simple, but only grammatically. The geo-political, historical and cultural connotations of her statement are very deep and disturbing. In her reply, the word “us” represented the entire pan-Islamic world barring Pakistan and Bangladesh and “you” apparently implied the entire South Asia including Pakistan and Bangladesh. In one stroke she gave him a reality check viz-a-viz his identity and shook the very foundations of the two-nation theory that had led to the creation of the state of Pakistan 70 years ago. For decades now Pakistanis have been marketing themselves to the middle east as “fellow muslims”. And, for centuries the middle east has been referring to them as “Hindis” for they come from the other side of the Indus. It is like one-sided love. Pakistan Studies Curriculum loves to count the Umayyad general Mohd bin Qasim as the first Pakistani ever whereas the Arabs continue to look down upon the sub-continental Muslims as converts. And, from my modest experience in different parts of the country and abroad, I have understood that the converts, whether Christians, Sikhs, Muslims or Hindus, never quite receive the same status as the original keepers of a faith. This leaves the huge population of Pakistan in the middle of an identity crisis. They tried to break up with India and all that was Indian in the hope of an egalitarian treatment in the Arab world. Instead they ended up losing everything they had and got nothing they had desired. Today they stand isolated, as far away from the Middle East as from India and as close to the holy Mecca as to the sinful New York city.

Apart from being converts, another reason why the Pakistanis are not treated as equal Muslims by the Arabs is because they never quite gave up the Indian culture even as they kept parading around with their Islamic identity. They had severed their ties with India but could barely give up their shared love for the language, music, dance, festivals, costumes and above all the Hindi movies. So, it is not surprising to come across a Pakistani who thinks like an Indian but tries to sound like an Arab or a Persian. Culture aside, many of them could not even give up their Hindu castes. Those who belonged to a higher Hindu caste continued to use their supposedly superior Hindu surnames even after getting proselytized. The surname of my friend, Abbas is, for example, Minhas which is a slight contortion of Manhas (a Rajput surname). The common Kashmiri surname Butt, which is a derivative of the “prestigious” Brahmin surname Bhatt, is another example. These names are inherently Indian and make no sense to the Arabs.

The narrative of the Indian Muslim is quite the opposite and very promising. The Indian follower of Islam has beautifully juxtaposed his nationality and faith and has no misgivings whatsoever about his identity, heritage and history. I remember Saeed Naqvi saying in a 2010 interview to Steve Paikin on TVOntario that the Indian Muslim is a stakeholder in the huge democratic scramble. A scramble, in which he forms a scrum along with Sikhs, Christians, tribals and the various Hindu castes and tries to get as big a piece of the pie as possible. The Indian Muslim, majorly Sunni, is the engine for modernity and moderation in the Islamic world. Pakistani Muslim, on the other hand, does not seek that future. He is happier following the radical doctrine of Wahhabism. The Indian Muslim has local heroes in politics, education, media, science as well as cinema (such as Maulana Azad, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, Zakir Hussain and the Khans of Bollywood) and does not have to search beyond its borders for role models. Pakistanis, on the contrary, have chosen Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammad of Ghor and Genghis Khan to decorate their bedtime story books. The locals who should have been their role models are often disowned unceremoniously by the government. The case of Prof. Muhammad Abdus Salam is relatable here. He is unquestionably one of the finest physicists the world has ever seen. He had to leave Pakistan at the prime of his career in 1974 when the government declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims. His grave originally carried the epitaph “First Muslim Nobel Laureate”.

The government of Pakistan got the word “Muslim” removed from it. Another potential hero (at least for them), Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, was put under house arrest for several years under pressure from the west. Amongst the intellectuals, Tareq Fatah’s is another story of a nation’s failure to accept its identity. The liberal activist known to express his Indian roots freely was imprisoned twice and barred from journalism by the military regimes of the country. Today he is a proud citizen of Canada and an international celebrity. In politics too their sole hero, Jinnah, could do little more than secure a separate state and could leave no legacy unlike India’s Nehru and Gandhi for the future generations of his country. The military heads and the corrupt politicians who then took turns in managing the show failed miserably to evoke a sense of pride amongst the Pakistani masses. In view of this identity vacuum, the masses look around for aliases to relate to. We were looking for a home day care for our son in Canada and were given a list of south-Asian individuals licensed to run a facility from their homes. All of them, without exception, introduced themselves as Indians over the phone and all of them, without exception, turned out to be Pakistanis afterwards!

So, here is a nation borne out of political opportunism alone. It has no character and no indigenous role models to look up to. A nation confused about its past. A nation with an unenviable future. This is a nation without an identity.

Courtesy: www.dailyexcelsior.com (an article by Rajeev Kumar Nagotra)




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