Dangerous narratives

[My article for The Friday Times issue Oct 22-28, 2010. I had captioned it Packaging History!]

Ejaz Haider

Prof K K Aziz lamented that we had murdered history. He wrote a book, captioning it The Murder of History and detailed in it, through examples from textbooks, the fudging, the excision, the selection and the concoctions necessary to create a uniform narrative in which Pakistan and Pakistanis could be grounded. His work is important; equally, however, it needs to be seen why and how nations create their histories which refer to and strengthen their meta-narratives.

In Europe, after the peace of Westphalia, princely states began flocculating as nations, giving rise to the concept of the nation-state. The process was catalysed by the French revolution and Europe settled down into multiple nation-states as if it was the most natural thing to have happened.

Colonisation brought it to us. The idea was transplanted through the formation of “modern” political systems and processes of negotiations, albeit underpinned often by oppressive administrative control. Then came decolonisation. While the trajectories of those struggles were not uniform across the colonised world, the colonised peoples nonetheless lapped up the idea of the nation-state. Freedom threw up states that have since been grappling with the process of creating nations. Some have been largely, though not fully, successful (India); others have continued to falter (Pakistan).

India too has created its history which, like Pakistan’s anti-India narrative, is often anti-Pakistan. The interesting point to note is that histories, among other things, rely for internal uniformity by referring to external threats, the process of “othering”. In India, Prof Aziz’ role was played by Prof Krishna Kumar with Prejudice and Pride: School histories of the freedom struggle in India and Pakistan who explained this process of othering the “former self”. Not an easy process this because as Prof Kumar argues, “India and Pakistan are politically so far apart and culturally and geographically so close that there is no room for an epistemic space between them.”

But what needs to be conceded, and which we are loath to do in Pakistan, is that India did not solely rely on an anti-Pakistan narrative to keep itself together and evolve the concept of Indian-ness. It managed to put in place, quite often with much pain, the idea of Constitutionalism. And by Constitutionalism I do not just mean “a complex of ideas, attitudes, and patterns of behaviour elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law”, but also those political rules of the game, referring to a fundamental text, that are accepted by all political actors.

In other words, political interaction, even at the height of bitterness, must unfold under the overhang of prescribed, non-violent procedures. How does this come about? Only when there is acceptance by all political players that they will vie for capturing power and the resources of the state by adhering strictly to the rules of the game. Inherent in this acceptance is the expectation that if the results of the competition (election etc) are indeterminate ex ante, each will be able to pick up the spoils commensurate with the resources he has disposed of in the competition.

It should then be clear that creating a narrative itself may not be enough. It has to be supplemented by other devices. We have been more uniform in putting out the narrative. And yet, for several other reasons, we are also a people that challenge that narrative far more often and frequently than India does, the latter’s fringe notwithstanding. We had thought that Islam could bind our disparate communities. East Pakistan put paid to that idea. If the idea still survives that is only because we seem to have an infinite capacity for idiocy.

Every five to seven years we stand at a crossroads. Every intervention is supposed to be historic. Every past democracy is a sham. The net result: we have got ourselves into so many twists and binds that the only plausible way out is to have a deus ex machina descend on this stage and resolve the kinks of this plot.

We are now left holding a narrative that even makes us yawn; we hate the West and yet we are prepared to die on high seas in trying to get to greener pastures. Nothing is a bigger indictment of our nationalism than this. Each rumour makes us ask if this country is going to survive. Really? After 63 years, boasting one of the strongest armies in the world and being a nuclear-weapon state?

It shows, as nothing does, the inherent weakness of the state. Recently, in an interview to NDTV, former General Pervez Musharraf talked about the army as an integrative force. The deep irony of his words was completely lost on him. He should have realised, as those of us who are again looking at the army should, that this “cure” is worse than the disease.

Politics and political processes are not about administrative efficiency per se. They are about giving everyone a sense of participation. The process can never be complete; neither can it subsume everyone. But it tries to approximate to the ideal, as far as any process can aggregate interests that are contradictory and quite often conflicting. The army likes uniform because it wears uniform. It packages everything like it does the field service marching order for optimal survival in combat. And it mistakes good managerial skills for political leadership.

Ditto for uniform narratives; they are in fact dangerous and that is the paradox. It should be clear that in addition to murdering history, they can also end up assassinating the “art of associating” and the sense of oneness that underpins togetherness in otherwise large, complex and disparate collections.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times

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