Does Pakistan make sense? — I —Haider Nizamani

State and nation alignment is an ideal that very few, if any, states in the world meet. As a result, when overly centralised states like Pakistan try to erase social and political differences within a diverse society like theirs, in the name of creating a ‘true Pakistani’, the project is bound to be challenged

Pakistan will be turning 63 this month, but a question Ayesha Jalal posed 25 years ago has not lost its validity: how did a Pakistan come about that fits the interests of most Muslims so poorly? Professor K B Sayeed’s question asked, “Pakistan has a state, but does it have a nation?” Answers to these questions trigger heated debate amongst Pakistanis without leading to any satisfactory answer. Although a country of about 170 million faced with multiple challenges, of which religious militancy tends to get the most attention, we must remember that Pakistan was the first major post-colonial country to break apart because its ruling elite failed to accommodate the political, economic and cultural aspirations of its Bengali citizens. In fact, the separation of East Pakistan, which resulted in the emergence of Bangladesh, is one of those rare instances where the majority ethnic group of a country struggled, and succeeded in attaining independence. It is something that would appear incredibly bizarre to those who study separatist movements. Imagine an English-speaking population wanting to secede from Canada complaining of Quebec’s dominance, or the Sinhalese waging separatist movements in Sri Lanka citing Tamil dominance.

Nationalist challenges did not disappear in Pakistan with the emergence of Bangladesh. Why is that the case? My answer to this question is premised on four assumptions regarding present-day Pakistan. First, Islam is a shared religion of a vast majority of Pakistanis, but there neither was nor is “such a thing as a Muslim political monolith. Politically, Muslims were and are a diverse group.” Second, centralised expression of Pakistani nationalism has always been challenged by regional identities and that will remain the case, unless there is major overhauling of the political and economic system of the country. Third, no ongoing separatist movement in Pakistan has enough power to completely break up the country. Last, international powers, in this case the US, India and China, are not too keen to dismember Pakistan.

Nation and nationalism, as commonly understood, are recent ideas dating hardly four centuries back. Therefore, we should always be wary of claims of nationalists regarding the age of their nations, as most of them tend to exaggerate the age of nations. It so happens that global political cartography has carved up the world into nation states. The 20th century principle of national self-determination implicitly expects neat alignment between boundaries of a state and its constituent nation. However, state and nation alignment is an ideal that very few, if any, states in the world meet. As a result, when overly centralised states like Pakistan try to erase social and political differences within a diverse society like theirs, in the name of creating a ‘true Pakistani’, the project is bound to be challenged.

Pakistan wrong-footedly started its innings while dealing with domestic diversity and that remains the case as the country turns 63. If any country fits the story of blind men describing an elephant, it is Pakistan. Both before and immediately after the country’s independence, leaders from Muslim majority regions had quite different, often conflicting, views on why those regions should have a separate country and what will that country be like, should it come into existence. Much is made of the uniting force of the Two Nation Theory now, but as late as 1946, when Pakistan was becoming a viable proposition, many influential leaders from regions that were to comprise Pakistan had not fully bought into the Two Nation Theory. Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, premier of united Bengal, “demolished the Two Nation Theory by claiming that religion was not the only determining factor, and attached great importance to linguistic ties. Mamdot wanted [the] whole of Punjab. Hidayatullah’s only interest was to keep the Centre out of Sindhi affairs.”

The Centre trampled upon the rights and aspirations of the constituent units with impunity during the first year of the country’s existence. All of the following happened while Mr Mohammad Ali Jinnah, considered the founder of the country, was alive. Mr Jinnah tells Bengalis, who were the largest linguistic group of his newly minted country, that Urdu and only Urdu will be the official language of the country. In Sindh, the provincial government led by Ayub Khuhro from the Muslim League was dismissed and Khuhro was thrown into prison for he tried to contain the killings of Hindus in Karachi, and balked at taking Karachi away from Sindh to hand it over to the Centre. The government of Dr Khan Sahib was dismissed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Reluctant about the accession to Pakistan, the Khan of Kalat was forced to submit by the threat of a full-fledged army action.

While the arbitrary removal of chief ministers was one factor, it was a combination of concerns over economic opportunities, political representation, cultural grievances and historical injustices that fuelled regional nationalisms to challenge the overly centralised state. Regional nationalisms in the present-day Pakistan have intra- and international facets and they contribute in shaping Islamabad’s relations with its constituent units as well as neighbouring countries. Any discussion of ethnic movements, as they are pejoratively termed by proponents of Pakistani nationalism, or understanding genuine nationalist movements, as viewed by their supporters, without discussing Punjab is like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Monographs dealing with the ethnic nationalisms in Pakistan seldom allocate a chapter on Punjab. Late Feroz Ahmed, a perceptive analyst of the national question, did not have a separate chapter on Punjab in his book Ethnicity and Politics in Pakistan because “being the dominant group…Punjabis do not have an ethnic problem”. Their identity is subsumed in the Pakistani identity. Other scholars have variously called Punjab as an ‘ethnic hegemon’ and what occurs in the name of the state as the ‘Punjabisation of Pakistan’.

As a result of dominating the state apparatus of Pakistan, Punjab ends up with a paradoxical role as it considers itself as the custodian and cornerstone of Pakistan, but is viewed by all other groups as the major hindrance to national integration on an equal footing. This reservation is reinforced when the Punjab-dominated military has periodically resorted to brute use of force to suppress dissent in regions such as East Pakistan, Balochistan, and Sindh.

(To be continued)

The writer teaches at the department of political science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Canada and can be reached at

Article originally published in Daily Times, reproduced by permission of DT.

Front Page


  1. The author needs to re-read history. He is confused man and contradicts himself. I think he is ignorant of even the concept of Pakistan. That is why he has moved to Canada. Very good riddance.

    Salman Mahmood
  2. Salman Mahmood: Sorry for the late response, but you passed a few extremely harsh judgments without substantiating yourself. What are your qualifications and credentials to pass such judgments, if I may ask? I would you like to elaborate on your assertions. For example, how is Mr Haider Nizamani a confused man and how has did he contradict himself in this article?

    According to you, Mr Nizamani is “ignorant of even the concept of Pakistan.” If such a highly educated man is ignorant of the concept of Pakistan then how about the teeming millions who cannot even read and write? Should they all be pushed outside of Pakistan? Should all those educated people who don’t agree with your understanding of the concept of Pakistan, also be pushed out? If that happens, you would be able to say with unalloyed glee “Very good riddance”.

    Shakil Chaudhary

Leave a Reply