At first glance, the ARY Film Awards did not seem to be the most likely venue for an extended debate on patriotism and what it means to be Pakistani. Nonetheless, that is precisely what transpired earlier this week when Shaan and Ali Zafar, two stalwarts of the entertainment industry, traded barbs over working in India. During his speech at the ceremony Shaan berated many of his colleagues for taking on projects across the border, suggesting that they were unpatriotic for doing so. In his response to these remarks, Ali Zafar pointed towards the long history of Pakistani actors and musicians collaborating with their peers in India, and also argued that more often than not, ‘patriotism’ is invoked to mask Pakistan’s own shortcomings, shifting the blame for the country’s problems to external actors while refusing to engage in even a moment of introspective self-criticism.
The sparring between Shaan and Ali Zafar is interesting for several reasons. For one, in the context of the events that unfolded after the attack on Hamid Mir, the question of who is or is not ‘patriotic’ has once again assumed considerable importance. For the past two weeks, there has been a systematic attempt to label all those who do not support the military or the ISI as being anti-state actors at best, and ‘enemy’ agents at worst. Partisan media houses and right-wing parties have joined the military in labeling their critics as harboring interests inimical to those of Pakistan. In Lahore, banners and posters have been put up by a plethora of groups and organizations accusing the military’s critics of engaging in treason. The discourse that has emerged as a result of all of this is one that is based on two main assumptions; that the military and its various institutions defend Pakistan, and that any attack on the military is therefore an attack on Pakistan.
It is therefore not surprising to discover that Shaan finds the idea of working in India to be completely and totally repugnant. After all, it was Shaan who starred in the jingoistic paean to Pakistani nationalism that was Waar, a film that, for all its technical sophistication, was little more than an ISPR funded exercise in glorifying the military and portraying it as the only institution capable of saving Pakistan. More insidiously, the movie also reinforced one of the key tropes propagated by self-appointed guardians of the nation since 1947, namely the notion that militancy and instability in Pakistan is ultimately caused by the interference of antagonistic foreign interests. According to this narrative, the CIA, RAW, Mossad, MI6, and every other conceivable agency and organization exist solely to bring about the destruction of Pakistan.
It is easy to see why this is a particularly dangerous and self-defeating way of conceptualizing Pakistan’s problems. While Ali Zafar was speaking about the state of Pakistan’s entertainment industry, his basic point could apply to a number of other areas. In Balochistan, for example, the escalation of militancy and the continued existence of an ethno-national insurgency is often attributed to the effect of foreign agents intent on destabilizing Pakistan. Following this logic, the conflict becomes one that pits Pakistan against a shadowy external threat, justifying the use of any and all means necessary to thwart the nefarious designs of Pakistan’s enemies. The fact that the notorious Protection of Pakistan Ordinance allows the security forces to define their adversaries as ‘enemy aliens’ represents the chilling extension of this principle. The reality of the situation in Balochistan is, however, completely different; as a movement that has essentially existed since the late 1940s, it is impossible understand ethno-national sentiment in Balochistan without paying attention to the broader issues of centre-province relations in Pakistan, the exploitation of the province’s mineral wealth, and the continued dominance of Punjab and a predominantly Punjabi establishment.
Forty-two years ago, it was the same line of reasoning that led to the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. After over two decades of exploitation and marginalization, the Bangladeshi freedom movement was one that initially started out as an attempt to gain greater rights and representation for Bengal within Pakistan. Yet, rather than responding to these eminently justified grievances by making concessions or introducing reforms, the establishment pinned the blame for growing unrest in East Pakistan on India, thereby legitimizing a brutal military operation that killed tens of thousands of people but was, ultimately, unable to prevent the people of Bangladesh from exercising their right to self-determination.
By attributing the problems in East Pakistan and Balochistan to unseen foreign hands, the military and successive governments in Pakistan have been able to successfully avoid having to change the system that they have historically controlled. For the Punjabi establishment, conflating ethno-nationalism with external machinations provides a convenient excuse for not addressing the structural inequality that characterizes provincial relations in Pakistan. For the military, the ‘threat’ posed by India remains its raison d’etre, serving as the justification for the military’s continued interference in politics as well as the huge amount of public money that goes towards its maintenance. As should be clear from the example of Bangladesh, as well as the ongoing situation in Balochistan, this approach is incredibly, even cynically myopic; any ‘solutions’ borne out of this way of thinking cannot but fail to effectively and equitably address the root causes of unrest and militancy.
As such, it is important to treat right-wing claims of treason and a lack of patriotism with a considerable degree of skepticism. More often than not, these accusations simply serve to mask the continued, untrammeled exercise of power in defence of interests and entities that are loath to concede space to alternative narratives and forms of politics. Further evidence for this can be seen in the malleability of the claims that are made. While it is apparently unpatriotic for civilians to question the military in any way, abrogating the constitution and imposing dictatorial rule, as Musharraf did, is apparently justified in the national interest. Speaking out in support of the Baloch makes one an Indian agent, but aiding and abetting Islamist militancy and terrorism makes you a legitimate political actor worthy of a seat at the negotiating table. Choosing to record a song in India invalidates your identity as a Pakistani, but providing all manner of services, privileges, and access to Middle Eastern monarchs in exchange for a few crumbs is perfectly acceptable. What does or does not constitute treason clearly shifts and changes with the agenda of the military and political establishment.
The exclusionary nationalist narrative that has been propagated by the Pakistani state since 1947 is one that has aligned itself with a particularly parochial and patriarchal version of Islam, inculcated a deep and abiding hatred for India, downplayed the salience and importance of ethnic differences, and suppressed the articulation of identities that do not conform to these basic tenets. Buying into all of this inevitably buttresses the status quo, and the powers that preside over it. Agreeing with these propositions also allows these actors to set the terms of the debate, giving them the authority define both the ‘national interest’ and what it means to be a citizen of Pakistan. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, the dominant discourse in Pakistan obscures the fact that there can be strength in diversity, and that this country has much to gain through debate and the inclusion of different perspectives and opinions. Dissent can be a powerful catalyst for change, and is a necessary corrective to the abuse of authority. Highlighting the shortcomings of the military or the government is not unpatriotic; if anything, it is the opposite as it helps to identify the structural problems that must necessarily be addressed if Pakistan is to become a more participatory, tolerant, and just society. Those who speak truth to power in this country deserve our support. To label them as traitors is to do the real disservice to Pakistan.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.