Fearing diversity – by Nadeem F Paracha

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LUBP Archive on ‘Sindhi Topi Day’

December 4 is Sindh Culture Day. A day when the people of the Sindh will celebrate the cultural heritage of the province.

Though this year’s celebrations are being organised by the Sindh government headed by a Sindhi chief minister, interestingly, in Karachi, celebrating and acknowledging the rich cultural history of the province was (until the early 2000’s), the prerogative of the city’s local government headed by the MQM – a party closest to the Urdu-speaking mohajir majority of Karachi.

Even this year the governor of Sindh, a mohajir, is very much part of what has always turned out to be a colourful event. But this blog is not quite about rightly praising the overall ethnic unity that is displayed during such events in Sindh. Instead, this piece is about how disturbing it is to still find some people pointing out the ‘danger’ of highlighting the culture of ethnicities through such events.

For example, those finding the celebration of Sindhi culture ‘dangerous,’ seem to be driven by the monolithic narrative that although first formed in the 1950s, is still doing the rounds. What is more concerning is that some young Pakistanis have fallen for it, thinking that this narrative has something to do with ‘patriotism’.

This narrative first reared its clouded head in the shape of ‘One Unit’ – when in 1955 the National Assembly (studded with indirectly-elected bureaucrats and feudal lords) passed a bill merging 310,000 square miles (of what was then called West Pakistan) into a single province, with Lahore as its provincial capital.

The wisdom behind this unprecedented move was to keep Pakistan intact. The government and the state would have to begin peddling not only a single monolithic concept of ‘Pakistaniat,’ but also of Islam.

The move clearly demonstrated just how fearful and insecure the elite were with the concept of diversity and pluralism.

No world-weary, experienced and well-informed politician or leader could be as conveniently short-sighted as were those men and women who actually believed that by turning West Pakistan into a ‘one big happy province’ would do away with all the ‘dangers’ of the treacherous ethno-nationalism being posed by all the Sindhis, Baloch, Pashtuns and above all, the Bengalis (of former East Pakistan).

However, the truth was that the detested ethno-nationalism was mostly about certain ethnicities of the newly-formed country who were simply questioning the state’s economic and political fairness, especially in the event of these ethnicities blaming the state of being molded by ‘interests of the Punjabis’.

The logical move in this respect would have been for the state and the ruling elite to have summoned a system that would help the country naturally and systematically; to make all ethnicities feel that they too had a political and economic voice and stakes in the running of the country. A system that could have addressed the feeling of alienation and neglect some ethnicities had begun to experience.

That system truly should have been representative democracy. But the emergence of a convoluted theory like ‘One Unit’ proved that the ruling elite was nowhere even close to thinking along democratic lines.

The state rudely bypassed the positive political, economic and cultural mobilisation that a democratically navigated ethnic diversity can achieve for the well-being of the country and instead, turned the ethnic diversity of Pakistan into something largely static and stuck within the artificial parameters constructed by lofty but impractical notions of statehood and faith.

Ethnicities with long cultural histories and languages were suddenly asked to shed away their proud heritage and fall in line by adopting concepts of nationhood formulated by men who had little or no clue about the importance that these heritages played in the lives of many Pakistanis.

As trouble began to brew – mainly among the Bengalis, Pushtuns and the Baloch who were first to suspect such nationalistic notions as a way for the ruling elite to monopolize the country’s politics and economics – the 1956 Constitution was implemented.

Instead of working aggressively towards achieving representative democracy and doing away with the One Unit system, this constitution added another dimension to further fatten the concept – with religion.

In came faith. Meaning that from 1956 onwards, being a good, obedient and loyal Pakistani not only meant keeping one’s ethnic make-up under wraps, but to also following the concept of Islam dished out by the state.

In other words, being a Pakistani was now about being someone who should speak fluent Urdu (and English as a second language); who should reject things like ethnic heritage as a thing of the past and of useless tradition; who should scoff at the more indigenous and folk versions of Islam as being backward, and adopt what the state prescribes as real Islam.

The state continued to face wave upon wave of Baloch, Pushtun, Bengali (and later) Sindhi resentment. But the more the state and ruling elite failed to curb the deeply entrenched and rich ethnic sentiments and traditions,  the more ‘Islam’ the state added to the One Unit narrative.

Even the supposedly secular Ayub Khan dictatorship in the 1960s was not immune in this respect. For example, the state-owned Radio Pakistan was only allowed to play Urdu film songs and eastern classical music. Very rarely, if ever, the then popular station allowed playing a song that was not in Urdu (or English).

During the successful movement against the Ayub dictatorship (1967-68), not surprisingly, the political forces that were most active in the anti-Ayub movement did not really come from the religious parties who had called him anti-Islam in the early 1960s.

On the contrary, the movement was mostly driven by secular and leftist political groups. These groups also had a number of Pushtun, Baloch and Bengali ethnic nationalists who had been harassed to no end by the state ever since the 1950s.


Though the brief dictatorship of Yahya Khan did decide to undo the One Unit, things were not to be so pleasant after all.

After doing away with the One Unit system, the state’s brand new enemy became secular which it saw as the Ayub regime’s greatest folly. The thinking now among the ruling elite was that had Ayub not alienated the religious parties with considerable street power, these parties could have been used to check the rise of leftist and ethnic-nationalist opposition to the state.

Thus, ironically, in the face of the complete failure of concepts of nationalism and faith peddled by the state, the state did eventually turn towards the religious parties just before the historic 1970 elections.

The Yahya dictatorship is said to have invested considerable amounts of money and resources into religious parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) to achieve a hung parliament in which the state under the Army would continue to play an influential role.

But the artificial nationalism that was enforced for so many years had done quite the opposite of what it was first triggered to achieve. By the end of the 1960s, Pakistan, instead of being a cohesive and united country with one language and one faith, was a deeply fissured society.

What was to be democratically harnessed, navigated and celebrated – i.e., ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity – was insulted and messed about via the One Unit, turning this diversity into a multi-headed monster.

Even the victory of the left-liberal Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in West Pakistan, and the Bengali nationalist Awami League (AL) in East Pakistan during the 1970 elections wasn’t enough to reverse the damage done by the games the state had played with deeply-held ethnic traditions and heritages of a lot of Pakistanis.

The result was the utter collapse of the so-called ‘two nation theory’ (Pakistan for Muslims, India for the Hindus) upon which the founders had formed the country. The bloody breakaway of Muslim East Pakistan (that became Bangladesh) in 1971 sounded the final death knell in this regard.


It is surprising that the ruling elite just simply refused to recognise the realities associated to nations heavily dotted by diverse ethnicities, sects and religions. Though such diverse nations have the potential to thrive under democracy, they will always be immersed in a constant cycle of ethnic and sectarian conflict if controlled and navigated through a singular concept of religion or nationalism. Such is an illogical, reckless and an unnatural act in a country brimming with ethnic and sectarian diversity.

Though under Bhutto’s populist democracy and regime (1972-77), wearing one’s ethnicity on the sleeves stopped being scoffed at or discouraged, Bhutto too, could not escape using the remnant ways of the One Unit mindset to neutralise his opponents.

In the name of nationalism, he used the Army against Baloch nationalists (1973) and then even turned to appeasing the religious parties (1974) by invoking the myopic religious aspect of the One Unit mindset to justify his action against his secular and ethno-nationalist opponents.

The whole democratic notion of ethnic and religious pluralism was insulted, and it finally bit back when religious parties used the same narrow anti-diversity concept of One Unit Islam to topple Bhutto in a 1977 movement.


Pakistan had squandered a golden opportunity to become what its founder, Jinnah, most probably wanted it to be: a democratic, progressive and pluralistic Muslim majority state.

This squandering wasn’t lamented, but actually celebrated by the likes of General Ziaul Haq. His dictatorship was a mixture of vicious Machiavellianism, stern political repression and state-sanctioned cultural and social myopia, which created various shades of monsters that emerged from the follies of One Unit Islam. Monsters that to this day are out to violently do away with any Pakistani who dares to reject whatever notions the concept of One Unit Islam has mutated into.

These mutated notions that though pretend to unite us as Muslims, have gone on to retard the very faith that they believe they are serving.

While the myopic religious aspects of the One Unit mindset were allowed to take hold in every facet of politics and society by Zia, the ethnic fissures created by the state in the 1950s and 1960s and then again under Bhutto, exploded during the Zia dictatorship with the Sindhis and the mohajir also joining the fray. Each one now bitten by the economic, political and cultural discrepancies that continued to arise with the state’s constant effort to enforce a single (and artificial) concept of nationalism.

This enforced nationalistic notion attempts to appeal to a Pakistani’s sense of belonging and pride by feeding him distorted sound bytes about Islamic history, and a fist-clenching exhibition of patriotism which, when looked a bit more critically, is more akin to a demonstration of xenophobia against certain ‘enemy religions’, secularism and, of course, ethnicity.

The myopic message remains: These ‘enemies’ are to be feared and loathed if Pakistan is to survive as a united nation of Muslims. Anyone disagreeing is to be suspected and shouted down as being unpatriotic, or indulging in the ‘polarising ways of ethnic politics’, or perhaps even being an enemy agent, if not an outright infidel.

Isn’t it clear by now that a democratic celebration of diversity is what Pakistan should be about, and not an enforced and artificial sense of faith-based singularity that has generated nothing but violence, mistrust and confusion?



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