Dr Eqbal Ahmed was probably one of the most eloquent anti-imperial post-colonial voices of the 20th century. Unlike the minions of the corporate academia — like me — he left behind an inimitable record of activism and public engagement, and not incomprehensible refereed journal articles — that no one reads — to his credit. Through action and writing, he contributed to the struggles of the oppressed and the colonised. In his lifetime, Ahmed had been very fond of telling the story of the relationship of two other giants of the 20th century — Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Tagore was worshiped in Bengal as the humanist voice and the soul of Bengali culture, and of the great Indian civilisation in general. He was given due reverence by Gandhi and the Congress leadership as an aging intellectual, but he was also looked at with askance for his hostility towards the nationalist agenda. Tagore had unequivocally blamed the mass slaughter of the 1st World War on the idea of nationalism, and was opposed to Indian nationalism. His argument, from the 1920s till his death in 1941, was that British rule should be opposed because it is unjust and not because it is by the white man over the brown man (sic). He said that India was a rainbow civilisation, where the British — because of their historic presence — belonged as much as the layers of other people including the Mughals, who had come to call it their home. According to Eqbal Ahmed, Tagore had said: “today you make the distinction between the brown man and the white man. Tomorrow you will make the distinction between the Hindus and the Muslims. The day after you will make a distinction between the Indian North and the South. There is no end to the politics of difference” as encapsulated in nationalism. He was indeed prophetic.
Fast forward to the 1940s, as soon as Pakistan came into being, we went on to make the distinction between real martial Muslim — West Pakistanis — and the ‘less martial’ Bengalis of East Pakistan. Soon afterwards, we decided that Ahmadis were not real Muslims, the rest of us were. The day after, we decided that the Shias do not belong in the pale, and then the Barelvi Muslims and so on and so forth. On the nationalist front, we reckoned that after the Bengalis, the Baloch and the Sindhis were Pakistanis with a hyphen, and nowadays the Pashtuns are terrorist Pakistanis. We’ve managed to fulfill every nightmare that Tagore had foreseen to be a consequence of nationalism.
Sir Zafarullah Khan, the first foreign minister of Pakistan, had been the president of All India Muslim League between 1931 and 1932. He belonged to the Ahmadia community. Under his leadership, the relatively better educated Ahmadia community was one of the most fervently pro-Pakistan constituencies in India. But as fate would have it, those who opposed the Pakistan movement the most, the religious right-wing, successfully perpetrated anti-Ahmadia riots in Punjab in 1953, and then had the community declared non-Muslim at the hands of the populist prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in 1974.
“Today you make the distinction between thebrown man and the white man. Tomorrow you will make the distinction between the Hindus and the Muslims. The day after you will make a distinction between theIndian North and the South. There is no end to the politics of difference” — Rabindranath Tagore
That the state should pass judgment on the spiritual veracity of a people’s claim to a certain identity is a distinctly colonial artifact, and Pakistan, like India, has used it to good effect. After all the Indian constitution also declared Sikhism as a sect of Hinduism, something that the Sikhs are not very enthusiastic about. Be that as it may, today it has become perfectly okay in Pakistan for politicians and public representatives to espouse genocidal sentiments about the Ahmadia community with impunity in fact, and almost with public approval — at least in Punjab — which is all that matters in Pakistan politically.
Anti-Ahmadia rhetoric to my mind is symbolic of the middle class anxieties in Pakistan. Middle class is always insecure about its upwardly mobile pretensions and has to stake out space between the elites, who hoard the cultural capital of the society, and the working class that has to keep a sharp eye on questions of material production and redistribute justice. In the increasingly middle class, petty bourgeoisie dominated politics of Pakistan, the declaration of authenticity in spirituality, morals and manners is the currency of respectability. And what better way to do it than to create a diabolical other against whom your spiritual authenticity can be confirmed. After all the other’s beliefs really have little functional effect on one’s own. It has to be for the optics of it. The Ahmadia community is a victim of nationalism, which is again a middle class phenomenon from the French Revolution through the modern world history. In the pre-independence period, the Ahmadia middle class politics had aligned with the Pakistan movement. Post independence, the middle class politics of Pakistan ended up targeting the community as an internal other against whom Muslim, and hence Pakistani, credentials were authenticated
The historical joke, if there is one, is on us, indeed.
The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror
Published in Daily Times, October 24th 2017.