It seems almost traitorous to be writing this lukewarm post on the day of ‘Independence’ when I’ve been saying how excited I am about 14th Aug for over a week now and planning the picnic etc. Yesterday, coming back from Basingstoke with Asim I was brooding over something (even I wasn’t sure what) and after his incessant prodding and my repeated failed attempts, I was finally able to put some of it into words.
My ideas were hardly innovative. I heard Altaf Hussain, of all people, articulating the same things on TV! What he said was right, but the intention I can’t trust. Basically, I was worried about my ‘celebrations’ to be mistaken for a blind support for all that the ‘State of Pakistan’ wages on it’s people. In particular, I was thinking of the people of Balochistan and also of Swat, Buner etc where the military has been carrying out its operation for over 2 months and the numerous other tribal areas where the Americans are carrying out drone attacks with impunity because of our government’s not-so tacit consent. I was thinking of the hundreds and thousands of people I saw in IDP camps in Pakistan in July and I especially remembered the scene in Jalozai camp where I literally got goosebumps and with horrified tears in my eyes, I started silently chanting “astaghfiruallah” to myself. Till you could see, there were rows upon rows of dusty tents in scorching heat, no trees or green or any shade within miles. Later we learnt that water supply was sporadic, NGOs were discouraged from working there and even the food provided was less than edible. We were told by the camp authorities that we weren’t allowed to go in because the people in these camps (unlike those in camps in Mardan and Swabi) were from “sensitive” areas who were not only resentful of the government, but also any foreign aid agencies.
The areas being referred to as ‘sensitive’ were Buner, Shamozai and tribal areas whose people had been made homeless and forced to take refuge primarily because of US drone attacks. I thought to myself, so THIS is the ‘collateral damage’ of drone attacks which William Milam, previously US Ambassador to Pakistan, at a talk in Oxford in May had said was ‘exaggerated’ by the Pakistan media. I remember seething at the comment and challenging it later during Q&A when I told him I had family still living in Bannu (next to Waziristan) who had directly experienced drone attacks and who could mention incident upon incident of innocent people who had been killed or whose homes had been destroyed. To that Mr. Milam retracted his statement and said he didn’t deny it but it was in fact with the consent of the Pakistani government and military. In other words, the US couldn’t really be blamed. On his latter point, I agree with him.
In July, my phuppo – who has lived her entire life in Bannu- told me that for as long as she could remember there used to be a ‘chholay wala’ (street vendor selling spicy chick pea snacks) in Bannu bazaar. This year, after the curfew was imposed in Bannu, one day he was somehow not able to pack up his cart and goods in time and vacate the bazaar. He was shot down by a missile. Somehow the death of this street vendor was for her the worst injustice even though in terms of casualties, there had been many worse. She also told me of a young boy who ventured outside his home after the curfew timings to the family vegetable plot outside to get some vegetables for an evening meal. He was also shot down. I’m sure the locals can narrate many more such incidents. What does all this naked abuse of power lead to? A love for Pakistan? I highly doubt it.
So yesterday being reminded of all these jumbled incidents in my head, it really struck me what an artificial concept ‘nationalism’ (and patriotism) is. Benedict Anderson had very aptly called nations ‘imagined communities’. The concept of ‘nation-states’, as we understand it now, is in fact a very new idea gaining currency in the 20th century due to colonialism and the subsequent independence movements. A Somali friend of mine gets extremely agitated when talking about it because, especially in the African context, nation-states have just led to numerous civil wars, mass displacements and botched development of a people who always thought of themselves as tribes or ‘peoples’ rather than as ‘nations’ bounded by geographical boundaries. This of course doesn’t mean that those of us who are born and grow up in these boundaries with a constant dose of ‘nationalism’ through school curricula and media propoganda, don’t actively subscribe to this identity. For us, it may be imagined but it is as real and tangible as anything else.
For me being a Pakistani is sometimes my most important identity other than being a Muslim or a woman or a Pathan. The latter I’ve only recently begun to embrace. If a kid in school asked me where I was from (“aap kahan sai ho?” is a favourite question for school children in my experience, especially when us air force kids were at a new school every other year or so), I would always say ‘Pakistan’ and they would look at me incredulously as if I was stupid or trying to be ‘over-smart’. And then there would be follow up questions about which city or ethnicity I belonged to. Believe it or not, the term used was ‘caste’ (“aapki caste kya hai?”) to which when I was older, I’d reply “what do you mean ‘caste’, we’re not Hindus” and of course what they were trying to get at was whether I was Punjabi or Pathan (and less so Kashmiri, Sindhi etc). YES I’M PATHAN, thank you very much.
Being pathan was such a sore point for me growing up. All the anti-pathan jokes (basically, we’re the Sardar Ji’s of Pakistan) and all the negative stereotypes– our Pushto-accented Urdu (mine isn’t that accented because of my mother’s conscious decision not to speak to us in Pushto), naswaar consumption (how is it worse than smoking? just cultural imperialism that considers it a lowly thing to do. My grandmother, only member of my family who takes naswaar, hid it from us kids for years because she was ashamed of how we would react to it. She of course admits that it is a bad habit, but got addicted to it years ago as many of her generation living in the villages), guns, women’s purdah, male chauvnism etc– didn’t allow me to take much pride in being a Pathan. My mother was once asked by an aunty, an educated woman, “Do you guys wear afghani frocks at home or shalwar kameez?” Yes, of course we wore afghani frocks…umm just about 100 years ago you ignorant fool!
Perhaps the worst racism and discrimination in Pakistani history was against the Bengalis and ironically the Pathans were as guilty of it as the Punjabis. I recently read A Golden Age by Tehmina Anam and I was amazed how uncomfortable the book made me feel. It is a novel about the 1971 civil war (the book of course refers to it as the ‘war of independence’) and the idea of imagined communities is what struck me the most. We forget now that Bengal had been at the forefront of the independence struggle for Pakistan. Muslim League was founded in 1906 at Dhaka (!) and Fazlul Haq (given the title ‘Sher-e-Bengal’ had drafted and moved the Lahore Resolution in 1940 which is considered THE document leading to the creation of Pakistan. For the next 2-3 decades they were as much Pakistani as any of the people in West Pakistan. However, it was the constant discrimination, dirty politics and at times outright ethnocentrism/racism that led to this entire province comprising almost half of Pakistan’s population to feel alienated and disenfranchised to the extent they no longer wanted to be Pakistanis. Their identity of being Bengali (and later Bangladeshi) trumped all others. It’s interesting for me how your nationalistic identity can completely change over time and how at the end of the day, it’s a matter of choice unlike your other identities such as being black or Asian or female which cannot be done away with.
I don’t want to get into a book review here but it was this thought that I could not shake off yesterday– the idea that you can renounce your identity. It scares me. When today we celebrate Pakistan’s independence, we need to remember that there are people within our country that are unhappy, miserable, homeless and who feel less than Pakistani or anything but Pakistani. Instead of cheap patriotic slogans that declare them traitors (‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ kind of mentality), we need to think about their (no, OUR) problems and think of WHY they are angry, hurt or upset and why perhaps they don’t want anything to do with Pakistan. Whether it’s Balochis asking for more provincial autonomy or people in tribal areas who have been affected by US drone attacks or the people in IDP camps who are in miserable conditions through no fault of their own. A lot of the onus of responsibility rests on the government, but the least we as individuals can do to ‘celebrate’ independence is to acknowledge that these problems exist and try our best to take a balanced stance on issues that affect our fellow Pakistanis rather than constantly thinking of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. We need to contribute whatever we can to trusted organizations that are doing something to relieve their suffering. I don’t care if you prefer Edhi Foundation, UNICEF, Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Zindagi Trust, Human Relief Foundation, The Citizens Foundation or none at all, just do something. Something more than cheap patriotism that stops at wearing green, shouting slogans, singing national songs, dancing on streets and stunts on motorbikes.
Cheap patriotism is not enough to make the entire ‘imagined community’ think of itself as a nation. We need more.