Pakistan is a big country with breathtaking geographical diversity. From the world’s highest mountain ranges in north to a vast desert and a reasonably long coastal line in its south and from fertile alluvial plains in the mid-east to mineral-rich arid and rocky swaths in its mid-west – the country is more diverse than most countries under the sun.
The obvious corollary of this is that Pakistan is inhabited by a large number of communities with unique histories, economies, social structures, cultures and politics. The state of Pakistan fails to acknowledge this diversity as a source of strength. It is in fact afraid of it. Since its inception in 1947, it has seen this diversity as an obstacle in its project of building a nation on the unitary principles of one religion, one language and one country.
Historically speaking, the first major expression of this mindset was the ruling elite’s refusal to accord a national language status to Bengali which was then spoken by a majority of Pakistanis. Bengali, of course, has a strong, centuries-old literary tradition and was routinely used in all the facets of statecraft in pre-independence Bengal. Yet the state of Pakistan saw it as a barrier in the way of its notions national unity and, therefore, wanted to impose Urdu in its place.
The first decade of the country’s history was, thus, wasted in bitter tussles between the ruling clique and the Bengali polity. As the formulation of the constitution was delayed and those at the helm of affairs continued to rule on ad hoc basis, they invented the concept of One-Unit that divided Pakistan into two ‘equal’ wings. Bengalis, however, considered this division as an attempt to marginalize them.
The same scheme resulted in the clubbing together of four distinct polities – Punjab, Sindh, Pakhtunkwa and Balochistan – as West Pakistan. All of them were required to renounce their centuries-old identities and instead switch to a new single identity overnight. The enforcement of this single identity required that any political and/or cultural assertions to the contrary were to be deemed treasonous. This, in turn, alienated and marginalized all but those who were opportunistically aligned with the state for personal gains. The One Unit experiment not only failed miserably in blending all the disparate parts of West Pakistan into a single whole, it also strained and distorted their mutual relationship.
When political arm-twisting and highhanded administrative tactics failed to achieve their intended result of fostering a single national narrative, the state brought out the gun. Thus began Pakistan’s long history of military rules which has time and again used violent strategies to smother the country’s diversity in the name of creating ‘one-nation’. Though the One-Unit scheme was abandoned in 1969, each subsequent martial law practically converted the whole of Pakistan into a single administrative unit, subjecting it to newer and more disastrous nation-building experiments.
This mindset continues unabated to date in various forms. At present, the diversity-is-a-problem outlook is expressed through opposition to the 18th Constitutional Amendment enacted in 2010 to devolve a number of governance sectors to the four provinces. Each province, consequently, can have a different policy on the same subject – and that is seen as a ‘problem’.
Just to appreciate that we are not talking about some tiny regions, consider this: Punjab has as many people as the whole country of Philippines; it has 30 per cent more inhabitants than Germany; population of Sindh is more than that of Spain and close to that of South Korea; and Pakhtunkhwa has more inhabitants than Canada.
The state’s obsession with unity and its refusal to accept, respect and celebrate its diversity has been a permanent source of marginalizing all those individuals, communities, polities and ideas that disagree with the state on how the country’s constituent parts should come together.