Pratap Mehta: Pakistan’s Perpetual Identity Crisis

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (30 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a political theorist and intellectual historian based in New Delhi, is leading us through another reflection on the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The reconsideration of partition is a critical, current existential question not only for South Asians, but also for Americans who watch the continuous outrages from Taliban and CIA sanctuaries inside Pakistan. It’s a question on many levels — terrorism, geopolitics, ethnicity and religion — but, Pratap Mehta says, “it’s fundamentally the question of the identity of a country.”

In his telling of the partition story, the contemporary reality of Pakistan grew out of a failure to answer a core challenge of creating a nation-state: how do you protect a minority? It’s Mehta’s view that the framers of the modern subcontinent — notably Gandhi, Jinnah & Nehru — never imagined a stable solution to this question. He blames two shortcomings of the political discourse at the time of India’s independence:

The first is that it was always assumed that the pull of religious identities in India is so deep that any conception of citizenship that fully detaches the idea of citizenship from religious identity is not going to be a tenable one.

The second is that Gandhi in particular, and the Congress Party in general, had a conception of India which was really a kind of federation of communities. So the Congress Party saw [the creation of India] as about friendship among a federation of communities, not as a project of liberating individuals from the burden of community identity to be whatever it is that they wished to be.

The other way of thinking about this, which is to think about a conception of citizenship where identities matter less to what political rights you have, that was never considered seriously as a political project. Perhaps that would have provided a much more ideologically coherent way of dealing with the challenges of creating a modern nation-state.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 12, 2011.

Unlike many other Open Source talkers on Pakistan, Pratap Mehta does not immediately link its Islamization to the United States and its 1980s jihad against the Soviets. Reagan and his CIA-Mujahideen military complex were indeed powerful players in the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, he agrees, but the turn began first during a national identity crisis precipitated by another partition, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Suddenly, Mehta is telling us, Pakistan could no longer define itself as the unique homeland for Muslims in the subcontinent. In search of identity, and distinction from its new neighbor to the east, Pakistan turned towards a West Asian brand of Islam, the hardline Saudi Wahhabism that has become a definitive ideology in today’s Islamic extremism.

Mehta is hopeful, though, that in open democratic elections Islamic parties would remain relatively marginalized, that despite the push to convert Pakistan into a West Asian style Islamic state since 1971, “the cultural weight of it being a South Asian country” with a tradition of secular Islam “remains strong enough to be an antidote.”

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  • Comment on Pratap Mehta ROS interview:
    There are two dimensions to Hindu-Muslim tensions that deepen and put into perspective the perceptive points of Pratap Mehta, including the role of Bangladesh 1971 and the General Zia ideological turbo-charging of army and state.

    One dimension that gives a historical setting is offered by the micro-data offered by Prof. Saumitra Jha of Stanford who connects communitarian tensions and tolerance to opaque roots in the past:
    “Using new town-level data spanning India’s medieval and colonial history, this paper finds that medieval trading ports were 25 percent less likely to experience a religious riot between 1850-1950, two centuries after Europeans disrupted Muslim dominance in overseas shipping. Medieval trading ports continued to exhibit less widespread religious violence during the Gujarat riots in 2002. The paper shows that these differences are not the result of variation in geography, political histories, wealth, religious composition or of medieval port selection, and interprets these differences as being transmitted via the persistence of institutions that emerged to support inter-religious medieval trade.”
    “The paper further characterises these institutions and the lessons they yield for reducing contemporary ethnic conflict.”
    http://cambridgeforecast.org/blog2/2010/10/06/gujarat-2002-hindu-muslim-tensions-in-historical-persepective/
    Another dimension—the contemporary global-historical one–is the parallel with Israel’s “Jabotinsky radicalization” inaugurated by Menahem Begin’s prime ministership beginning in 1977(Netanyahu is a legatee), which parallels General Zia’s “Islamization” thrust also from 1977.

    Pratap Mehta insightfully traces the Pakistan radicalization to the identity trauma of the 1971 Bangladesh war while the Israel case is bound up with the 1973 Egypt-Israel War and the quasi-defeat of Israel
    saved by US military airlifts and diplomatic pressures.

    In other words, one can “run” with Pratap Mehta’s analysis and go both backwards into the Professor Jha ethno-backstory as well as wider to a more global analysis where an eerie Middle East echo exists.

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  • Potter

    Pratap Mehta is excellent. This conversation was enlightening, clarifying, especially on a psychological level, and especially regarding the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 forming Bangladesh.

    What a shame, tragedy, that it is not the hearts of the people that are pulling things apart but certain selfish interests such as the Pakistani military( to keep itself primary).

    This reminds me of the Israeli-Palestinian situation in some ways. There is not that communal feeling underneath the two groups which are de facto partitioned. There are too many years of mutual traumatizing plus one party having the ability to oppress the other. Arabs and Israeli’s would otherwise be drawn to each other – have a lot to offer each other. But divided we can see further break-up within each side. Division seems to have caused further divisions, fragments.

    Who you are and where you come from not mattering as far as political rights go is our founding idea and still an example ( to say something good about us in general) we offer. The difference here is that we are a nation of immigrants, refugees, seekers of opportunity and freedom, and not divided according to religious groups nor focussed on those differences. I’ll leave it there skipping over other worrisome trends not resting on religion.

    Thank you Chris!

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