Of academics, experts and nation building

I have trouble telling a coherent story about my immediate and extended family in Pakistan, let alone stories about the 200 million plus souls living in this country. How do the Pakistan experts do it?

Through most of my academic career, I always felt a little uneasy every time I went to a regional conference on South Asia or Pakistan. Many, if not most of my Pakistani colleagues tended to have such vast panoramic views and narratives about Pakistan. Some explained civil-military relations, others spoke of the role of religion in the polity, yet others spoke of identity, ecology and class in Pakistan, for example. Speaking strictly of the stories about Pakistan in the scholastic register, one cannot but be impressed by the claim making of many Pakistani or non-Pakistani ‘Pakistanist’ academic colleagues.

I have trouble telling a coherent story about my immediate and extended family in Pakistan, let alone stories about the 200 million plus souls living in this country. How do the Pakistan scholars do it? And more importantly why do they do it?

I cannot answer the quintessential Pakistan question “where are you from?” with as much facility as almost every other Pakistani I know. The question is also code for asking what I am and where I fit on the ethnic, class or religious mental map of Pakistan. I find that an extremely boring and largely silly question — at least intellectually. The more important question might be, who am I, and how do I fit in with how millions of others perpetually create themselves through words and deeds across the incredible human and ecological diversity of Pakistan. Don’t forget Pakistan is virtually the size of France and Britain combined, and it has more people than Britain and Germany combined.

Yet I have almost never come across a British, French or a German academic who would lay claim to being a Britain, Germany or France expert, or purport to tell a story about the entire country. And no one will ever dream of calling any of my colleagues an expert on any of those countries, or a water expert, like I am branded as a Pakistan water expert. Or as in a friend’s case — ‘water experts’, by WAPDA, even though she is a singular person.

All social science disciplines, particularly International Relations and Economics, lend themselves to macro-level analyses where construction of vast categories like Pakistan, India, or Pakistani polity is not only easy methodologically, but almost a pre-requisite

How do Pakistan scholars do it, is relatively easy to understand. Most Pakistan scholars hail from disciplines such as Economics, International Relations, and nowadays increasingly, religious studies, anthropology and sociology. The 3-4 Pakistan oriented geographers don’t really count. All social science disciplines, particularly International Relations and Economics lend themselves to macro-level analyses where, construction of vast categories like Pakistan, India, or Pakistani polity is not only easy methodologically, but almost a pre-requisite. So not much of a mystery there.

But the Pakistan scholars tell purported stories about the entire country and it also has to do with them and how they create themselves as Pakistanis or Pakistan experts. First, most scholars, I know for a fact, don’t have a Pakistan wide research agenda. In an international forum, however, they always speak like their work in some corner of Central Punjab, FATA or Lahore, is generalisable and representative of all of Pakistan. The claim is obviously absurd, and most of them hopefully know it. But more importantly, given the paucity of academic research beyond, the tired old tropes, of nuclear bombs, mullahs, military, terrorism and undifferentiated gender stories, Pakistan scholars almost have to frame their work as if they bring tidings, and strange tales from a far away, magical land — the Tilism-e-Hoshruba of the academic world.

Second, as a friend reminded me, the profligacy of scholarship pretending to be on an entire country, is very much tied into the ‘nation building’ ambitions of those countries. We have to speak of Pakistan as a category, because Pakistan scholars, especially of Pakistani origin are in fact, discursively embedded in the nation building project. They can pretend to be oppositional, but their very use of the category Pakistan is deeply symbolic. The European countries, for example, Italy used to have comparable national scholars as they were emerging as states.

Lastly, most middle class Pakistanis have a limited and undifferentiated experience of Pakistan. They travel along the same transportation arteries, eg GT Road, Motorway, Islamabad highway. They spend their entire lives in practically similar types of neighbourhoods, from Nazimabad to Defence, for example, and live in virtual ethnic and political echo chamber, all their lives. To most of them, the vastness of the country is occluded by the poverty of their own sensory and cultural experience of the place. And even when they do venture out of their cocoons, they have the middle class blinders of modernity, religiosity or secularism and unquestioned ethnic xenophobia, that won’t let them see the variegated realities that might be out there. No surprise then, that Pakistan scholars, have to be possessed by the phantom they are known to grasp — Pakistan.

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, December 5th 2017.