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Reworking Pakistani identity

ALMOST exactly a year ago, I wrote about how assertive nationalism/patriotism has found space for itself in Pakistan’s electoral sphere through the PTI and specifically through Imran Khan’s politics around the Pakistani state. As part of the same nationalist project, the current government, and the prime minister himself, have taken a number of steps in the cultural domain as well.

These include ISPR-sponsored content putting out ‘Pakistan’s perspective’ on important events, such as the creation of Bangladesh, stressing Muslim identity as a key pillar of Pakistani identity, the focus on self-purification to protect against perceived Western moral failure, creating (somewhat contrived) connections with Turkic Islamic culture through television shows, and a series of interventions in the educational domain, such as through the Single National Curriculum and various legislation. At face value, these steps help develop a more unitary form of Pakistani identity.

Legitimate reservations against the content of such steps aside, none of these are out of place for modern states. Every state (and its political/military elite) goes to great lengths to create cooperative citizens, who are likely to identify themselves with some larger political project and the country as a whole. It helps in securing rule for a select few, but also, if Prerna Singh’s work on sub-nationalism in India is considered, helps to create bonds of trust that can produce positive developmental and civic outcomes. Whether the latter happens here remains to be seen.

A large part of why we’re seeing this more forcefully now in Pakistan is because of the concerns around Islamophobia and Muslim identity developed under the so-called war on terror, but also the rise and immense popularity of Modi and Hindutva in India, which has made the task of sharing a pan-subcontinental cultural identity — one which has adequate space for Muslims and their local Islamic heritage — impossible.

The state provides a set of cues to questions of identity, but so do citizens from various intellectual and occupational backgrounds.

So we know what the state and its political elite is doing, and we have some idea of why it’s happening now. The key question is, how is it being received and interpreted by citizens at large? The easy answer is that it’s too early to tell. Apart from occasional alarm over the content of the school curriculum and the hypothetical impact of a Turkish television show on attitudes towards minorities, we have little to go by. There are, however, indicators that cultural producers (artists, writers, internet content creators in Pakistan and in the diaspora) are dealing with similar questions of ‘what does it mean to be a Pakistani in the present age?’

A good demonstration of this question and its proposed answer can be found in the Pakistan pavilion at the World Expo in Dubai. The pavilion has won much acclaim for its façade and overall design, and gets a great deal of foot traffic. Inside, it represents a particular liberal conception of Pakistan, with considerable space and attention devoted to ethnic diversity and history through art and music, peaceful religious co-existence and pluralism, connections to the land where Pakistan exists, ie Gandhara and the Indus valley civilisations, and the ambition, ingenuity, and contribution of citizens (particularly women).

The content carries little resemblance to the actual experience of Pakistan as it exists today, but if one is being charitable, it can be seen as what the curators and artists involved (as well as those who approved it) probably want the country to be.

Another interesting area where citizens are answering questions of identity is the culinary world. A couple of weeks ago, the BBC published some coverage of an “Indian” restaurant that gave away hundreds of free meals on Christmas day. An immediate reaction to the story came from Pakistani internet users locally and in the UK diaspora who pointed out that the owner of the restaurant was a Pakistani-Kashmiri and the use of the “Indian” tag for his restaurant was incorrect. This is notable because food from the northern part of the subcontinent is usually passed off as Indian all over the world. But with this incident, and with the rise of specifically Pakistani branding on diaspora restaurants in the US and UK, there seems to be a greater effort to create a separate culinary identity.

Whether by default or design, this is also visible in the writings of some contemporary food writers, such as Zainab Shah, whose content for The New York Times and other outlets — recipes for aloo anday, samosas, steamed chicken roast served at weddings, and an Eid feast – have centred their (and the writer’s) Pakistani origins quite categorically. Similarly, another excellent food blog, Maryam Jillani’s Pakist­­an Eats, features a number of regional dishes from the geographical territory that constitutes Pakistan.

Domestically, YouTube as a platform has enabled greater exploration of food diversity by digital content creators, though not all of it is worth watching. The most notable intervention here, however, has been Nilofer Afridi Qazi’s Pakistan on a Plate series, which has done remarkable work identifying different food traditions in various regions. These include the use of different grain types, extremely localised vegetables, herbs and greens, and preparation techniques that are not commonly found in standard restaurant or urban home cooking.

These examples show that questions of Pakistani identity are being asked and answered through a variety of different platforms. The state provides a set of cues and answers to questions of identity, but so do citizens from various intellectual and occupational backgrounds. What is common in some citizen-led initiatives is that they centre diversity under a singular tag. This means there is acceptance of the country as a geographical/territorial entity, but no enforced unanimity on what that should mean in terms of cultural practices, ie belief, ritual, customs, and food. Perhaps this interpretation also offers a blueprint that the state should pay a little more attention to.

Umair Javed, "Reworking Pakistani identity," Dawn. 2022-01-10.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political aspects , Political parties , Political leaders