Dec 16 & Muslim nationalism


WE mark this day in 2012 with inconsolable sadness. Even the new dawn brings the melancholia of twilight. Will a brief reflection on Muslim nationalism in South Asia lessen the gloom?

Perhaps Aug 14, 1947, actually marked the birth of un-identical twins pretending to be a single nation-state. This is not to subscribe to the cynical view about the country’s birth expressed at its very advent to the effect that the new entity was doomed to fail, sooner rather than later. This is to speculate as to whether the only nation-state to be created with two parts separated by 1,000 miles of hostile territory represented, from the very start, two variable expressions of Muslim nationalism in South Asia.

One strand in West Pakistan represented a Muslim nationalism claiming to comprise a wide diversity of ethnic, linguistic, tribal, regional and political identities. Some of them freely chose to join the new arrangement. Some of them were absorbed by gentle as well as coercive persuasion.

Another strand, as in East Pakistan, represented a Muslim nationalism further reinforced by being simultaneously rooted in a strong, singular ethnic, linguistic Bengali identity.
The un-identical twins coexisted politically under a shared name for 24 uneasy years. On Dec 16, 1971, the people of East Pakistan rejected the concept, practice and even the name of an inequitable, discriminatory, overly centralised state structure super-imposed by force. They did not reject their fundamental Muslim identity while being more truly Muslim and secular in their pluralist respect for a large non-Muslim, Hindu part of their population.

In the former western wing, the struggle to come to terms with religion as a corner-stone of nationalism has become far more violent and destructive than in the former eastern wing. But in both the two former wings, for Muslims in particular, being Muslim and separate from India remains as important as being Pakistani and Bangladeshi.
For those who assail the two-nation theory and say that it perished in 1971, there is an inconvenient truth to consider. Despite the break with West Pakistan, the old East Bengal (now Bangladesh) does not wish to be reunited with the old West Bengal in India. Neither does the old West Punjab (now Punjab in Pakistan) wish to be reunited with East Punjab in India.

To the extent that religion is often one of the potent factors that shapes national or sub-national identity, even the Muslims of India — despite their own rich diversity of ethnicities, languages and cultures — are a distinct nation that prefers to live in a predominantly Hindu India which officially describes itself as a secular state.
Thus, on Dec 16, 1971, the two-nation, two-state theory simply, though tragically and violently became a two-nation, three-state theory.

Unlike historical nationalisms like the Han-Chinese or the Arab-Egyptian or the Persian-Iranian nationalisms which have grown over several centuries, the full-fledged Muslim nationalisms of Bangladesh and Pakistan and the Muslim sub-nationalism within India are comparatively young processes of identity formation, well less than a century old. Over the decades and centuries ahead they are likely to mature and change in a more rational direction: to become more inclusive and respectful of other religions and internal sects.

Pakistani Muslim nationalism will hopefully benefit by learning from the more balanced and secular orientations of Bangladeshi Muslim nationalism and Indian Muslim sub-nationalism particularly to prevent extremists in parts of both society and state from controlling the direction.

Far from the two-nation theory going up in smoke on Dec 16, 1971, it has deepened and strengthened its roots in the soil and the soul of South Asia.

The writer is a former senator and federal minister and author of Pakistan: Unique Origins; Unique Destiny?