Street scene in downtown market, Lahore, PakistanStreet scene in downtown market, Lahore, Pakistan. [photo contributor: Roberto Cornacchia / Alamy Stock Photo]

[This article is from a special edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs looking at Pakistan at 75.]

What, who is a Pakistani?

What does ‘Pakistani’ mean? According to Akbar S. Ahmed (1997, p. 188), the ideological confusion miring Pakistan’s national identity and its failure to invoke a cohesive national identity construction in the spirit of mutual tolerance lies at the core of ethnic and religious violence in the country. The ideological confusion stems primarily from the failure of the Muslim League to define whether Pakistan was to be a secular or religious polity (Staniland, 2021), although the early leadership was clear in weaning Pakistan away from a theocratic form of government, as the Constituent Assembly debates cited above make clear. Despite the ideological confusion, a seminal consensus existed on the unitarian nature of the Pakistani national identity project, rooted in a rhetorical allusion to Islam and the Urdu language (Akhtar, 2018, p. 119). This was intended and needed because the greatest threat to the unity of Pakistan was felt in the dangers of ethno-linguistic mobilisation (Staniland, 2021).

Special edition: Pakistan at 75
Research Article – The rocky road to modernity: an assessment of Pakistan’s 75 years
Opinion – Pakistan at 75: a mixed record

In catering for a unitary national identity project, Pakistan was not expressing a unique form of politics. In fact, the invocation of commonalities and oneness lies at the core of both the Western ‘civic’ and non-Western ‘ethnic’ conceptions of identity (Smith, 1991). According to Brubaker (1999), the Western ‘civic’ nationalist project also contains appeals to ethnic, cultural and descent claims, as well as impatience with ethnic difference. Even the French civic-territorial type tends towards radical assimilation which is intolerant of cultural differences and minorities which some refer to as ‘ethnocide’ (Smith, 1998, p. 212). No wonder then that the unitarian national identity project in the Western world is now impacted by the desire for independence as witnessed in Scotland, New Caledonia and Catalonia (Pattie & Johnson, 2017; Serrano, 2013).

In this section, I want to reiterate that the key task in broaching the meaning of the Pakistani identity is to pay attention to its normative content, specifically, diversity-acceptance. This is attempted by focusing on two key identity indicators that inform the foundational episteme of the Pakistani citizen/person: religion and language. It is through religion and language that nations produce traditional/historical imaginaries of the nation for purposes of social reproduction of identity as well as its relevant boundaries (Anderson, 1983). This reproduction or social engineering and the pursuit of a totalising, unitary identity from the top creates a performative tension given the societal heterogeneity down below. This exudes the following questions: If the meaning of Pakistani is associated with the Muslim identity then what about non-Muslims in the country? Are they not Pakistanis? How does Pakistani national identity achieve sustenance when the national language, Urdu, is the first language of only a minority of people in the country? Why invoke commonalities when identity and culture are usually hybrid and ambivalent in nature? (Bhabha, 1994). I will attempt at making this clear by alluding to a fictional Pakistani citizen, M.

Introduction to special edition – Pakistan at 75
India at 75 – July 2022 special edition

M is an individual who holds a Pakistani identity. Being a Pakistani, living in Pakistan, possessing a Pakistani identity card privileges M, for the citizenship makes her liable to engage in educational and professional pursuits, as opposed to say, a refugee whose citizenship status is uncertain. However, M’s Pakistani citizenship as a privilege may exist with other identity self-representations that condemn her to a position of subservience and neglect. As a woman, for example, M’s understanding of Pakistani society as a site of patriarchy and male dominance may be at odds with (male) Pakistani citizens exposing tensions in her identity affiliations as Pakistani and female. Moreover, M is also constitutive of an ethnic identity – Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun, Mohajir, Siraiki, Hazarawal, Gilgiti, Balti etc. Let’s say, M is a Baloch and experiences discrimination and neglect of her ethnic group. In this sense, M’s national identity (Pakistani) remains insufficient and it is the ethnic minority status that encapsulates her worldview invoking fissures between her national and ethnic identity. M also possesses a professional identity. In this case, she could be a professor, researcher, doctor, lawyer, student, banker etc. The professional identity is an individual trait deriving from the pursuit of specific educational and intellectual goals, where national and ethnic identity may be less salient. M works in an office space where her promotion to a higher position might not be linked with her identity status but her professional competence and diligence. Similarly, M also possesses a role identity that flows from social relations including wife/mother/daughter/friend etc in which ethnic, religious or national loyalties retain less potency. M is a Sunni Muslim but has Shia Muslim as friend(s), is a Baloch but her social circle includes non-Baloch. These interactions are devoid of identity constraints because personal traits and mannerisms might be a decisive factor in determining M’s social circle. M could be motivated to befriend or marry someone because of their intelligence and intellect or sense of humour or kindness, all instances in which national, ethnic and religious identities might be less salient.

The multiple identities that M holds and how they come into play are also dependent on the context. For example, if M is travelling outside Pakistan, her engagement with immigration authorities and foreigners will likely result in the evocation of the national (Pakistani) identity as opposed to ethnic identity. However, if M is operating within Pakistan, people are most likely to know about her ethnic identity for the national identity is taken as assumed and given.

Farhan Hanif Siddiqi is Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.