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Unravelling the acrostic—or the unravelling acrostic? 18 June 2014


Image: http://cache.pakistantoday.com.pk/2013/09/pakistan_word_map.jpg

Unravelling the acrostic—or the unravelling acrostic?      18 June 2014

The term ‘Pakistan’ is a manufactured acrostic in which the letters stand for various regions: ‘p’ for Punjab; ‘a’ for Afghania (the area around the former North-West Frontier Province (NWFP); now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa); ‘k’ for Kashmir (the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K)); ‘i’ stood for nothing and was not in the original term ‘Pakstan’ coined in 1933 but was added later to make the term easier to pronounce, although some revisionists now claim that the ‘i’ stands for Indus; ‘s’ for Sind; and, ‘tan’ for Balochistan. Another meaning of the term is ‘the land of the pure’ in Urdu, Sindhi and Persian. More on that later.

Almost from its inception, this acrostic has proven to be problematic. Firstly, it did not include a ‘b’ for Bengal, a factor that may partially explain why Bengali-dominated East Pakistan always struggled to belong in the geo-political construction of Pakistan comprising two wings separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory. In 1971, East Pakistan separated violently and became Bangladesh. In retrospect, the demise of the unique, two-winged, post-colonial entity of Pakistan unified only by religion was not surprising.

Another problem area has been Balochistan. Since 1947, Balochis have struggled with the concept of their region being part of Pakistan. This may be because there is no ‘b’ in the acrostic ‘Pakistan’ that specifically represents Balochistan. The ‘tan’ in the acrostic, which term means ‘the land of’, does not relate strongly to Balochistan only. There were many others ‘tans’ in or near the British Indian Empire in 1947: Hindustan, the land of the Hindus, a popular pre-partition name for India; Waziristan, the tribal area adjacent to NWFP; Afghanistan; Cholistan, the desert area of southern Punjab; Baltistan, in northern J&K; Kohistan, in northern Pakistan; Nuristan, in Afghanistan; and, Central Asia’s Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan (formerly Kirghizia), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; etc. There also was India’s post-1947 agglomeration called ‘Rajasthan’, meaning the land of rajas or kings, with an ‘h’ in the ‘tan’, but close enough.

Another problem is the ‘a’ representing ‘Afghania’. This refers to Pakhtuns in Pakistan’s north-west. But the term also includes Pashtuns in Afghanistan, whose nation does not accept the British-imposed Durand Line border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and whose summer capital was Peshawar until they lost it to the Sikhs in 1834. Equally, some in ‘Afghania’ aspire to create a separate state of Pashtunistan/Pakhtunistan, which would displease Islamabad. Equally, the term ‘Afghania’ is inappropriate for ethnic Hazaras living in Khyber Paktunkhwa, some of whom now want their own state since following NWFP’s renaming in 2010. The same applies to people in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), although most of them are ethnic Pakhtoons. Would the creation of new states for Hazaras and FATA-ites require the insertion of an ‘h’ and possibly an ‘f’ into the acrostic ‘Pakistan’?

Conversely, the capital letter ‘P’ for ‘Punjab’ dominates the acrostic, as do Punjabis numerically dominate Pakistan. Punjabis comprise about 53 per cent of all Pakistanis—if Saraiki speakers in southern Punjab are included. (Pakhtuns are next largest ethnic group, comprising 15.5 per cent of all Pakistanis.) Punjabis are powerful numerically, politically and in the military. There is, however, talk of Saraiki speakers being given a separate state, which may not be problematic as the Pakistan acrostic already contains an ‘s’. But, Sindhis, who long ago lost control of their provincial capital, Karachi, to Urdu-speaking Muhajirs (refugees) from India and their descendants—which ‘interlopers’ also have no letter representing them in the acrostic Pakistan—may be displeased.

As noted, the term ‘Pakistan’ also means ‘land of the pure’. When coined, this term represented a slight to twice-born, high caste Hindus seeking to obtain ‘moksha’, or liberation, from the cycle of birth and rebirth by engaging in virtuous activities to acquire spiritual purity. By using the term ‘Pakistan’, Pakistanis essentially were thumbing their noses at these Hindus and saying ‘we’ve already made it spiritually’. While most Hindus are often disinterested in Islam, in Muslim-majority Pakistan, some Pakistanis seemingly—and increasingly—are disagreeing that this nation is actually the ‘Land of the Pure’. Hardline Muslims, such as the Pakistan Taliban, now are seeking to impose their version of Islam and/or Sharia law, including by using violence, to make both Pakistan and Pakistanis, regardless of their sect or religion, more Islamic. Consequently, the self-perceived ‘Land of the Pure’ increasingly is becoming the ‘Land of the Intolerant’. This is tragic given that Islam is supposedly a religion of peace. Perhaps the ‘i’ in the acrostic ‘Pakistan’ should now stand for Islam, given how all-encompassing the struggle over which type of Islam should be imposed on Pakistanis has become?

The final meaning for the term ‘Pakistan’ comprises a different interpretation of the acrostic. Devised long after the original term, possibly in an attempt to maximise the size of the prospective Pakistan, this acrostic’s components stand for Punjab, Afghania (North-West Frontier Province), Kashmir, Iran, Sindh (including Kachch and Kathiawar), Tukharistan [which roughly equated to Turkestan], Afghanistan and BalochistaN. This represented a huge and ambitious claim that extended the proposed state of Pakistan well beyond the boundaries of British India. For this reason, it was totally unrealistic.

The current difficulties and troubles in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan suggest that the acrostic known as ‘Pakistan’ may be unravelling. Perhaps people in this nation need to contemplate changing their nation’s name to something more inclusive. One possibility might be ‘Indus-stan’, given how important this river system is to large parts of Pakistan—although India also takes its name from this waterway, which could cause confusion and provoke further rivalry. Another possibility is something geographic, like the accurate but inane ‘Western South Asia’. A third possibility is something that draws on the area’s glorious past, such as ‘Greater Harappa’ or ‘Greater Mohenjo-Daro’. While I am being somewhat flippant, names are important and have power—to both unite and divide.

The opinions in this blog are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organisations, professional or otherwise, with which I am involved or associated.

Christopher Snedden
18 June 2014