Our search for a forgotten identity - Kamila Hyat - Thursday, April 14, 2011

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

Why is Pakistan’s national anthem mainly in Persian, with a few words borrowed from Arabic? After all, hardly anyone in the country speaks these languages.

Linguists who have studied the dense phraseology of the anthem believe only the word ‘ka’ comes from Urdu. Generations of baffled school-children, singing out the words each morning, wonder what they could possibly mean - and in Balochistan nationalists argue it is pointless to sing a song no one understands anyway. At some schools the exercise has - controversially - been abandoned.

The main point however is not the language of the anthem - though it would be quite nice to have one we could easily understand - but what it says about our identity as a nation. We need to ask also precisely what constitutes nationhood and if we possess these qualities today.

To do so we need to glance back into history, towards events in the not very distant past. During its 63 years in existence, Pakistan has seen more than one civil war. The one fought in East Pakistan in 1970 resulted in the breaking away of one half of the country.

Ironically enough, despite the sniggering and racist jeers directed at the time towards the new nation and predictions that it would not survive, it has done better in social and economic terms than the former western wing that comprises the Pakistan of today.

Failure to do more to discuss this chapter in our history, educate younger generations about the course of events and correct the perceptions of people who lived through the war and the bitterness that preceded it have added to our issues with identity and confusion as to what it is that it consists of.

We have also experienced repeated insurgency in Balochistan with discontent continuing to trigger violence in that province. Only the miniscule size of the population of the territory prevents the struggle to assert independence from succeeding. Nationalist feelings run high in other areas too and raise questions as to whether our state is based around a commonality of religion or other factors. This has indeed been a matter of dispute since the inception of Pakistan.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s philosophy was abandoned over the decades that followed - and we live today in a country where the language a person speaks, or their ethnicity determined in other ways, can be enough to lead to their death. Murders on this basis take place regularly in Karachi and in Balochistan. The role played by some political parties or other organisations adds to the tensions.

There has even been doubt as to where we are located on the globe. Notably under the late General Ziaul Haq an attempt was made to transport ourselves from South Asia to the Middle East. School-books depicted children clad in the ‘thobes’ and ‘keffiyeh’ typical of Saudi Arabia as being ‘brave’ and ‘trustworthy’.

Far less favourable qualities were reserved for Hindus, and the suggestion seemed to be that we should somehow transform ourselves into Arabs abandoning the ties built over centuries to a uniquely sub-continental heritage and culture.

Many of the problems we face today arose from this attempt to pull a different part of the world a little closer, with the orthodox religious schools of thought rooted in Saudi Arabia encouraged to take up residence here.

The result is the advent of the Taliban and all kinds of other mayhem, including the blasts that have, notably since 2007, killed hundreds at shrines across the country, adding a new dimension to the violence we face and dividing society into smaller and smaller fragments.

Even now, the effort to pull back into South Asia is thwarted again and again by hawks who oppose ending animosity with India. There is limited recognition of the fact that this may be our only means of salvation offering a thin rope which, if we can gain a grip on it, may help us escape the curse of extremism and the havoc it continues to play.

There has been conjecture that the 2008 attacks in Mumbai may have been an attempt to prevent just such a bond from being built - and the language of hate continues to be spread through the country and imparted to new generations who deserve to grow up without the legacy of such bias.

On smaller scales too, there is chaos over identity. In Punjab, tens of thousands of parents, according to the last census in 1998, opt not to speak the language with their children. It is not taught formally at most schools and courses have been dropped from colleges because of a lack of student interest.

As part of the continuous war over identity, Urdu has been depicted as being somehow superior and standing higher on the lingual hierarchy as a language that is more ‘refined’. English stands higher still, and in many ways carves out a tiny minority as a group separated from the masses and commanding social status that casts them in the role of masters.

The divisions that exist, the question of identity and the problems that arise from it stem in many ways from the efforts to enforce uniformity rather than embrace diversity and build respect for all the sub-sets of people who live within the country. The questions over the events of 1947, the reasons why Pakistan was created and what precisely was gained in the process still need to be fully explored.

We still do not seem to know who we are, and have attempted to cover up this inadequacy by building within ourselves a fervent, but unauthentic patriotism that revolves around blaming conspiracies of all kinds for our many misfortunes, painting our faces green and white ahead of cricket contests with India as part of a high-pitched frenzy that masquerades as devotion to our nation and, on special occasions, belting out our enigmatic anthem in a language that is not spoken by anyone in the country.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com

Source : http://www.thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=41579&Cat=9

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