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Debating structure and context

Pakistan as a nation state

Debating structure and context

What are the structural problems facing Pakistan and how to bring about structural reforms so that these problems are addressed? This was a question put to me a few days ago by a couple of young and enthusiastic academics. Despite being inordinately loaded, the question did not irk me but its timing did. That was my final day at the GC University Lahore and I was not ready for any academic debate. On top of it, many colleagues and members of the non-academic staff were continually coming over to bid me farewell. The atmosphere in my office was rather emotionally charged and, perhaps, hardly conducive for any intellectual indulgence.

Besides, questions pertaining to structure or structural reforms are usually reserved for hard-core social scientists (like political scientists and sociologists) and are not essentially meant for historians. Historians usually put more emphasis on context than structure. However, the intensity of their quest and expectation couple with my analytical impulse nudged me to start formulating thoughts to adequately unpack the question and look for an answer.

I personally consider any structural analysis far too synchronic for my comfort. I wonder how one can make sense of an issue without contextualising it. I hope the structural issues too can only be understood and addressed if set in a context. When we talk about structural problems of Pakistan, it becomes imperative to peep into our colonial past. Here, the ‘our’ is somewhat contentious and therefore calls for a brief comment. The collectivity of humans represented in ‘our’ can be cultural as well as political.

In Pakistan’s case, there is a stark divergence because the cultural and political don’t converge — a situation peculiar to any post-colonial polity. With the cultural diversity that we witness in the subcontinent, the nation state both as a notional category as well as a political reality appears to be not practice-able. Cultural plurality can hardly be sustained in the straitjacket of a nation state. The nation-state throws up a mechanism of control which hampers the flowering of myriad cultures simultaneously. It is because the nation-state tends to standardise the lingual and cultural practices by employing arbitrary means and methods. Consequently, the cultural ‘our’ or ‘us’ is diluted and in its stead the political ‘our’ or ‘us’ has found projection.

Culture is an amorphous and free floating phenomenon which cannot be encompassed within the geographical frontiers. When the cultural landscape is complex, like in the case of India or Pakistan, the state structure operates like an antithetical force vis a vis culture(s). Yet another structural problem peculiar to Pakistan is the raison d’etre of its establishment — religious ideology — that does not correspond with the geographical confines that a nation state warrant.

Since our religion had, in the twentieth century, recast itself in a pan-Islamic mode; therefore containing it within the frontiers of a nation-state became quite an incongruent phenomenon. I have dealt with that incongruence (between religion and the nation state) in my previous columns. Discussing it again will be superfluous. Instead, I will focus on the problems emanating from the way nation state was introduced here rather suddenly.

When we talk about the Westphalian model of a nation state, which was supposed to be unitary in character, one must not lose sight of the fact that inherently it was a Western/European model, bound in the geography, history and social ethos of the region. It is important to take into account the gradual evolutionary process that the idea of such a state went through. One may argue that it was only after the First World War (1914-1918) that the nation state system could become properly functional. In the third and the fourth decades of the twentieth century, the nation state attained maturity not only as an idea but also as a reality.

Its manifestation during these decades and even up until 1945 had become ominous for the human civilization because, under Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Franco, it resorted to exclusionary and oppressive methods to assert its control. It was with utmost difficulty that such manifestation of a nation state could be obliterated. Since that state system served the capitalist interests, therefore despite the traumatic experience of Second World War, the nation state system was allowed to sustain itself. One toothless organisation, League of Nations ,was substituted with another toothless organisation, United Nations, to check any state with evil intentions.

But as the Cold War era was drawing to a close in the 1990s, the nation state system was faced with a serious threat, posed to its existence. As Zbigniew Brzezinski notes “nation state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concepts of the nation-state.”

Similarly, Jacques Ellul says even more emphatically, “What seems to be one of the disasters of our time is that we all appear to agree that the nation-state is the norm. … Whether the state be Marxist or capitalist, it makes no difference. The dominant ideology is that of sovereignty.”

Not only various issues that humanity confronts have assumed global proportions like climatic change, terrorism, immigration and human trafficking but the issues like Kashmir, Kurdistan, Rohingyas are a stark manifestation of the inability of the nation state system to resolve problems of such epic proportions.

When it comes to Pakistan, the shift from empire system to the nation state system was too sudden, which caused a great confusion. On August 13, 1947, all the regions constituting Pakistan were part of the British Empire but on the very next day, it emerged on the world map as a nation state. There was no time for the idea of a nation state to evolve. There was no context specific to the nation state which led to structural problems. That sudden shift ought to be debated by the historians and the possibility of some state system should be worked out whereby the socio-cultural plurality can be fostered.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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