Identity and Freedom 24 March 2014

Identity and Freedom    24 March 2014

We identify ourselves in many ways: by gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, location, religion—or lack thereof, political beliefs, sporting affiliation, etc. In some cases, we identify ourselves by what we are not: a sort of via negativa: we are not North Koreans, nor devil worshippers, nor pedophiles, etc.

In South Asia, identity is an important issue. In my experience, people in India have a strong sense of identity. The vast majority appear to be willing citizens of the pluralist nation-state that extends over a large part of the Indian subcontinent. These Indians are diverse and different, mostly secular, and tolerant of others’ beliefs and ideas. They practice ‘unity in diversity’ and participate in an entrenched democracy. Indians and many Indian leaders appear to respect Mahatma Gandhi and, to an extent, Gandhian values and practices. They dislike the colonial and imperial forces that Gandhi opposed, which partly explains India’s long held stance of non-alignment. Finally, many Indians have some sense of Indian ‘greatness’—particularly in relation to its former glory, but also with some hope of India attaining great power status in future.

Pakistanis, conversely, have a narrower, seemingly weaker, identity. This partly results because the acrostic ‘Pakistan’ only came into existence in the 1930s. This makes Pakistanis relatively new ‘people’, certainly when compared with ‘Indians’. Possibly because of this newness, Pakistanis appear to be somewhat insecure about their identity. They unify around three factors: the shared geography of the Indus River and its surrounds; being Muslims in a nation created as a homeland for Muslims (although, problematically, not all Pakistanis are Muslims, or in the case of Ahmadis are deemed to be Muslims); and, simplistically but pronouncedly, they are not Indians. In my experience, the latter negative factor is important, with Pakistanis incessantly feeling obliged to compare themselves with their former colonial ‘bedfellows’. (By contrast, Indians invariably compare themselves with Chinese.) Recently, I heard two prominent Pakistanis proudly state that Pakistan’s foreign policy was now more internationally cooperative and engaging than India’s and that Pakistan’s media was freer than India’s. This was a big deal for these Pakistanis who, like many of their fellow citizens, want Pakistan to be superior to India and Indians wherever possible. However, this approach is tiresome and sad, particularly as Pakistan has much to offer in its own right. Indeed, Pakistanis would be better off concentrating on making Pakistan a great nation in its own right rather than continually comparing themselves with India and Indians.

In the subcontinent, identity is also important to some ethnic minorities. Indeed, some have long been fighting to have a nation-state, or a province or internal state, established around, or that reflects, their ethnicity. This includes: Balochis, some of whom have wanted a separate Balochistan nation-state created in south-western Pakistan, south-eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan, since at least 1948; Kashmiris, many of whom have strongly wanted an independent Kashmir since 1988; and Nagas in north-eastern India who having been fighting since the 1950s for freedom. Other (usually failed) examples include Tamils in Sri Lanka, Buddhists in Bangladesh, Sikhs in India, and Bodos in India. Internally, Saraiki speakers in southern (Pakistani) Punjab want a separate province. In India, the new state of Telengana is to be carved out of western Andhra Pradesh on 2 June. Conversely, in some cases, nations have expelled ‘others’. Bhutan, for example, has expelled (non-Bhutanese, non-Buddhist) Nepalis. Similarly, Hindus in Muslim-dominated Bangladesh or Pakistan have left because they have felt personally unwelcome or threatened. Equally, Muslims have left India for these nations, chiefly Pakistan.

Kashmiris particularly have a strong sense of identity. According to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, A Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, they can trace Kashmiri rulers’ to at least 1182 BCE. More recently, Kashmiris have claimed that their culture and relations are overseen by a concept known as Kashmiriyat (Kashmiriness). While this term has been popularised since the Kashmiris’ instigated their anti-Indian uprising in 1988, it involves equality, tolerance for people of other religions, and inclusivity. These supposedly have come out of Kashmiris’ strong Muslim rishi tradition, which possibly has pre-Vedic roots. Arguably (and unfairly), it also is easy for Muslim Kashmiris to be tolerant of non-Muslims if only because Muslims comprise (at least) 95 per cent of all Kashmiris. The majority group has nothing to fear locally from non-Muslims. Whether Kashmiriyat extends to ‘others’ in Indian Jammu and Kashmir is another question. Non-Kashmiri Jammuites and Ladakhis may suggest that it doesn’t.

One irony of subcontinental identity concerns the right to self-determination. From about 1915, people known collectively as Indians increasingly campaigned for self-rule (swaraj) from the British. In 1947, after securing independent dominion status, these former British subjects were divided on the basis of religion into (post-partition) Indians and Pakistanis. The latter comprised West Pakistanis (Balochis, Hazaras, Mohajirs (refugees from India and their descendants), Pukhtoons, Punjabis, Sindhis, etc.) and East Pakistanis (chiefly Bengalis). Despite fighting for, and being granted, their freedom, Indians and Pakistanis have not been prepared to allow other subcontinentals to obtain a similar status. In South Asia, the only successful post-partition example of an area obtaining independence is Bangladesh in 1971. The East Pakistanis/Bangladeshis were motivated by West Pakistanis’ arrogance, exploitation and brutality. At the strategic moment, the Indian Army also significantly helped them. Arguably, their greatest asset was the physical distance between Pakistan’s two wings, which made integration difficult and, ultimately, suppression impossible.

History shows that the nation-state is reluctant to (seemingly) weaken itself by releasing territory, even if the retention of the recalcitrant area and its people involves significant ongoing costs, bloodshed, and opprobrium. Consider Balochistan for Pakistan and Kashmir for India. In both areas, some people consider the controlling nation to be repressive and colonial. Furthermore, their primary local identity trumps any national identity. Nevertheless, Indian and Pakistani leaders seemingly adhere to the subjugating principle of ‘do as I say, not do as my forebears did’. History also suggests that this approach will be difficult. Indeed, ultimately, it may be untenable.

Christopher Snedden
24 March 2014


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