The Dawn: Dec 12, 2014

Punjab Notes: Punjab’s dilemma!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Comrade Sobho Gianchandani, a great advocate of the oppressed who died this week in Larkana said about himself; ‘For the Pakistani establishment I am a three headed monster. I am a communist, I am Hindu, and I am Sindhi’.

His apparently simple statement reveals the complex contemporary Pakistani crisis as it unambiguously hints at the lethal mix of politics, religion and ethnicity all Pakistanis are compelled to live with. Such a crisis is acutely chronic in the Punjab. Punjabis, particularly the ones professing Muslim faith, have so far failed to reconcile what is reconcilable; the diverse constituents of their collective identity. Consequently, they have become almost an unmanageable liability for themselves and other nationalities of the country.

The problem is both simple and complex at the same time. Discovering and re-vitalizing uniting links between ethnicity, faith and political vision should not have been a conundrum but sadly in the case of Punjabis it is.

They tend to deny their ethnical roots and culture fearing that such an assertion may pollute their faith, dilute their Pakistani identity and undermine the national political unity. What they forget in their well intentioned endeavour is the inescapable fact that they are a product of specific historical conditions which can’t be wished away.

Human beings surely can create history but only by recognizing the limits imposed on them by history itself; the past. Punjabis suffering from an intellectual fallacy are loath to accept the residual existence of faith and culture of their ancestors that is embedded in their collective psyche.

Thus they disown Harappa and Gandhara which implies the negation of their Dravidian and Aryan roots, and the spiritual inheritance of their Hindus and Buddhist forefathers. That is why when Sindhis own and celebrate the shared legacy of Indus Valley the Punjabis fret and frown creating a discord as if Sindhis are lesser Muslims.

Sindhis’ owning of ethnicity and culture should not make us obfuscate the fact that among us they were the first to embrace Islam and Sindh assembly in the pre-partition days took the initiative of supporting the demand of independent homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent.

Their ethnic and cultural identity does not collude with their Muslim and Pakistani identity. The realization of multiple identities in fact is a source of their cultural, religious and political enrichment.

In other words, their past does not stand in the way of their present and the future. The past for Punjabis is a matter of the past; dead and buried in the dust of irredeemable time. They have got rid of the past envisaged as an albatross and yet such a pious act has not made them better Muslims and better Pakistanis. They in fact have ended up being bad Punjabis simply because denial of their ethnic and cultural roots carries an implicit warning to other nationalities which legitimately own what belong to them.

Despite the denial of their ethnic identity the spectre of their roots continues to haunt; they are perceived by others in this country as Punjabis for good or bad and treated as such.

The reality is that their sense of ethnic identity suppressed under the influence of ideological motives impacts them quite negatively. What was it if not an ethnic bias that made Punjabis deride the height and the skin colour of Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan? The prevalent Punjabi notion of ethnicity is quite convoluted; owning and disowning both are prompted by prospects of politico-economic gains.

It’s a pragmatic formula; make your ethnic claim when you stand to gain, withdraw your ethnic claim when you stand to lose. It means be Punjabi when you want your share of the pie and be Pakistani (which is not an ethnic identity) when you want to deny the others their legitimate share.

Punjabis have a confused sense of ethnicity and faith and as a result make a pretentious display of wearing their faith on their sleeves. The denial of their non-Muslim past as pointed out earlier creates a space for them where they can get away with anything and everything in the name of faith.

They can persecute minorities to dispossess them of their possessions, deny women their rights with the guile of patriarchy driven modesty code and gobble up the material resources of smaller federating units in the name of shared faith.

Political vision of Punjabi middle and upper classes revolves around their ill-conceived notion of monolithic national unity and non-inclusive patriotism resulting in an over-centralized state dominated by them.

Their centrist approach has not only spayed the institutions but also has alienated the smaller nationalities from the centre. The centre in its tedious effort to hold things together has to constantly engage in a politico-administrative exercise that yields low dividends.

Onus is on the Punjabis to sort out the all-engulfing mess we Pakistanis are in. They must re-define the issues of ethnicity, faith and political vision in an historical perspective with a view to evolve societal and state structures which on the one hand protect the legacy of our ancient civilization and on the other make our intrinsic diversity and plurality compatible with the demands of fast-moving world.

Let us not forget that if we are in the way of the world it can bypass us. Once bypassed, we would be ‘like lepers with all faces turned against us’. —

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