The national narrative

Salman Tarik Kureshi         Daily Times, June 12, 2010

What happened through the 1950s was the piecemeal articulation of a national narrative for the new state. Jinnah’s liberal, inclusive vision was converted into a faux Islamic exclusivism. Conformity was imposed on political pluralism and a unitary state, belying the Quaid’s crusades for provincial autonomy, was created

Pakistan, we learn, is rated among the five most unstable countries in the Global Peace Index. Scarcely surprising, given the ongoing civil war with half-savage bands of highly organised, well-financed and heavily armed insurgents, and the accompanying terrorist bombings and violent mayhem across the land. This is not to mention the internecine not-so-civil war between major state institutions, the bizarre conspiracy theories aired over the media, the bigotry trumpeted in pulpits across the land and the genocidal sectarian frenzies that are leading us ineluctably to national and civilisational suicide. The most unstable list includes Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, in addition to our beloved homeland.

The question is: what do these four countries have in common with us that their citizens (and ours) should continually suffer from the horrors of economic bankruptcy, political instability and state failure? Are these countries, as some left-wingers insist, states with no valid historical identities, artificially carved out by British imperialism? Well, yes, Pakistan was in fact so carved and Sudan was ruled by Britain for a considerable period. But Somalia was ruled by Italy, Iraq was an Emirate of the Ottoman Empire and Afghanistan was famously unconquered by the British. As for absence of historical identity, well, both Sudan and Somalia have been identifiable cultural and political entities since medieval times, with pre-modern monarchies of ancient lineage. Afghanistan was founded as far back as 1747 by Ahmed Shah Abdali. Only Iraq and Pakistan (founded, respectively, in 1934 and 1947) are modern state entities, whose names and identities were unknown to earlier history.

What is it, then, that makes for state instability here?

Let us understand that all nation-states comprise a geographically identifiable stretch of territory whose inhabitants (who may or may not have common ethnic, linguistic, cultural or linguistic characteristics) feel their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are better served by belonging to the state than not. Primeval identities may assist these processes of integration, but are not essential. Witness such notably patriotic citizens as those of, say, Vietnam, Canada, Brazil, Switzerland or even India. The point is that a nation-state is frequently a historical accident. However a state may have chanced to appear on a map, once it has done so, its purpose thereafter is nothing more and nothing less than promoting the wellbeing of its citizens. It is meant to provide governance, promote economic activity, make available education and other social services to its citizens and ensure their freedom, their rights, justice and law and order.

National narratives or ‘state ideologies’ are commonly developed after the establishment of the state, as a kind of retrospective justification, not before.

But sometimes there is a more insidious motive at work in contriving a post facto national narrative. In an earlier article in these pages, I mentioned Gramsci’s identification of hegemony – i.e. ideological control and, more crucially, consent – as one of the two tools of authoritarianism. By hegemony, is meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations.

Such a hegemonic narrative was thrust onto Pakistan.

But first came the political testament of the founder of the new Pakistani nation, addressing parliament, in which he trashed religious politics by stating that, “All these angularities of the…Hindu community and the Muslim community…will vanish…not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.” Not many months after his death, the Objectives Resolution, which can be seen as contradicting this testament, would be passed by that very parliament.

In what he regarded as an important gesture, the Quaid had personally commissioned the poet Jagannath Azad, a Hindu, to write the national anthem of his new state. This anthem would be discarded and a new one commissioned. What happened through the 1950s was the piecemeal articulation of a national narrative for the new state. Jinnah’s liberal, inclusive vision was converted into a faux Islamic exclusivism. Conformity was imposed on political pluralism and a unitary state, belying the Quaid’s crusades for provincial autonomy, was created. In place of our rich and diverse native heritage, a stultifying cultural uniformity was imposed. Ideological formulations were trumpeted, dissent discouraged. To oppose the state or its functionaries was to oppose Islam itself.

Understand that the levers of power in the country were not in fact held by the assemblies or the political parties. In the dichotomy between a weak ‘democratic’ political culture and a stronger ‘administrative’ culture, the civil-military oligarchy had assumed an autonomous role. These officers were thorough professionals – honest and exceedingly able. Elitist and paternalistic as a result of their Raj training, they believed – with some justification – that they understood the national interest better than anyone else. Officials like this commentator’s father knew better than to let things be run by ‘those damned politicians’ – an attitude that continues to pervade our establishment today.

In 1954, the politicians were thrown out altogether in the “Babu” coup d’état of Malik Ghulam Mohammed, assisted by General Ayub Khan. Four years later, the military under General Ayub moved to centre stage.

Following the populist-socialist hiatus between 1968 and 1977, the usurper Zia regime intensified and distorted the ideological narrative to malignant proportions. The institutions he promoted and the retrograde educational systems he erected polluted the intellectual atmosphere of the land and gave birth to today’s bigoted, obscurantist political culture and its poisonous fallouts of violent insurgency, terrorism and cold-blooded mass murder. This most retrograde of dictators ruled virtually unshaken for over 11 years – challenged only by the repeatedly martyred Bhutto family and the women of this country. Today, the spurious ‘national ideology’ promoted by the establishment to maintain an unconstitutional dominance, has spiralled completely out of control and both the citizens and the state are in mortal peril.

As we will now see, there are two factors common to Pakistan and the other four ‘unstable’ states. The first is the aggressive use, at varying points in the lives of these nations, of political Islam as a tool to suppress populism (Pakistan), radical nationalism (Sudan, Somalia, Iraq) or communism (Afghanistan). The second is the suppression of constitutional rule through repeated coups d’état or other upheavals, thus destroying the institutional underpinnings of the state.

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