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Is Pakistan Part of South Asia? Yes

Aparna Pande

Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir recently remarked that “Pakistan, India and other countries in South Asia and the region’s population of over one billion people cannot be geographically separated.” The remark represents a departure from years of attempts by Pakistan to deny its South Asian identity and link up instead with the Muslim Middle East.

Geographically, linguistically, culturally and historically South Asia is a vital part of Pakistan’s personality. Yet for decades a majority of Pakistani policy makers, intellectuals and strategists have attempted to virtually relocate Pakistan within the Muslim Arab Middle East.

India’s name is derived from the river Indus, which now flows primarily through Pakistan. Most of Pakistan’s pre-partition history is the same as that of India. The term Pakistan is an acronym patterned on place names used in Central Asia, names that were brought to India by rulers of Central Asian origin who eventually merged or became an integral part of India.

They are not Arabic in origin. Pakistanis do not speak any of the major languages identified with the Middle East—Arabic, Persian and Turkish—and their cuisine and costumes, too, have greater similarity with South Asian food and clothing. Linguistically most of Pakistan’s languages are spoken in other parts of the South Asian subcontinent—Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu (and before the separation of Bangladesh, Bengali).

Culturally Islam as practiced in South Asia has been different from rituals in other regions of the Muslim world, especially the Middle East. It has been more influenced by Sufism and has been more tolerant. The impact of Hindu customs and local culture on local practice of Islam and on South Asian Muslims is also very discernible.

However, since 1947, both at the level of domestic politics and foreign policy Pakistan’s policy makers have made a conscious effort to redefine the shared heritage with India. Marginalizing Pakistan’s South Asian identity and closer identification with a Muslim Middle Eastern identity seems to have been part of a larger strategic decision aimed at consolidating a unique Pakistani identity. This is a point I have further described in my book (Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India, Routledge, March 2011).

Soon after partition, Pakistani leaders faced the question of defining a Pakistani national identity distinct from that of India. Pakistan’s various provinces had ethnic or linguistic distinctiveness, which provided a basis for ethnic or language based nationalism, while their shared historical experience and heritage linked them to India as well. Pakistan had to be different from India if partition was to be justified and that raised the question of Pakistani identity.

Pakistan had little history of its own to appeal to but that of the Indian civilization (including India’s Muslim history) it had broken away from. Partition of the British Raj into India and Pakistan led to the separation of the new Pakistani state from the heart of the Muslim empire in South Asia, which now formed part of “Hindu” India. For centuries Delhi had consistently been the capital of India’s Muslim empires. The legacy of Indo-Muslim culture had evolved in kingdoms such as Oudh, Hyderabad, Rampur, Bhopal, Murshidabad, Golconda and Bijapur. The territory of these former kingdoms was located now in India and not in Pakistan. This left the new country with little within its territory to connect with the golden symbols of Muslim South Asian traditions.

Pakistan could have taken one of two roads—acknowledge its Indian history and laid itself open to constant critique over its raison d’etre or try and craft a narrative of history that matched its current ambitions. Pakistan’s leaders opted for the latter and in doing so, searched for episodic evidence in the relatively recent history of Indian Muslims.

Pakistan’s foreign policy has been cast in the same terms: because India is dominated by Hindus, with whom Muslims have little in common, Pakistan must draw closer to the Muslim states to its west. Many Pakistani strategists hold the view that Pakistan should by-pass South Asia and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) because the latter is only an umbrella to “legitimize Indian hegemony.” Although Pakistan has been a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) since its founding in 1985, Pakistan continues to give greater importance to its membership of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Some Pakistani scholars and journalists assert that active membership of the OIC and a low-key association with SAARC denies legitimacy to an organization where India has a dominant or primary role.

It is in this context that the recent remark by Pakistan’s top diplomat is worth noting Instead of seeing this as an acknowledgement of a Pakistani South Asian identity we must analyze the context. Pakistan, resents India being placed “in a different league” than Pakistan and Pakistanis do not want to be “linked to the Afghanistan problem.” Hence, in order to escape being part of “Af-Pak” Pakistan is willing to be considered South Asian especially if that also provides Pakistan with its elusive quest for parity with India. However, at its core some in Pakistan still seek a Muslim Middle Eastern identity to avoid acknowledgement of the shared heritage with India. One wonders if Foreign Secretary Bashir’s statement emphasizing Pakistan’s South Asian roots reflects the beginning of strategic rethinking among the country’s ruling elites.

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