Making and Unmaking Pakistani Nationalisms



For this conversation, we commissioned regular Funambulist contributor Fatima Anwar to speak with Ali Raza about ways through which we may deconstruct the idea of Pakistan as the political monolith it claims to be. Looking back and ahead at the many movements that break with such a uniformity—the establishment of the Bangladeshi state in 1971 surely being the most striking one—they offer us a heterogeneous vision that strongly differs from nationalist narratives.

Four drawings of a man with beard and a red cap, slowly fading into the background.
The man who talked until he disappeared by Bani Abidi (2019-2021). The picking up and “disappearing” of journalists, political activists, and dissenters of all kinds has become common fare in recent years in Pakistan. A development in the political machinations of a newly emboldened state that was “authorized” twenty years ago to pick up and provide people to the U.S. to be sent on to Guantanamo Bay, all without due process. These drawings are part of an ongoing set of portraits of men who are a threat to the Pakistani state, who have either been picked up in the past or are in the danger of “disappearing.” They were painted at different moments along a video timeline, as the artist listened to their interviews online. Many of the recordings are no longer available.

Fatima Anwar: Let’s start by talking about the ideas that the Pakistani state—however we want to define it—has about itself. What is the story of Pakistan that a dominant state narrative would want us to believe, and where does it fail to contend with the realities of the people who inhabit the borders of Pakistan? Can you talk about some political movements or moments that challenge the construction of Pakistan as a monolithic nation-state? 

Ali Raza: I like how you started off by complicating the state itself, and by disaggregating it, raising a question mark over what exactly “the state” of Pakistan is. I suppose a good way to begin might be with what we are taught in schools. The fundamental idea of Pakistan that comes forth from official state textbooks is a claim of civilizational difference from Hindus. This year, 2022, marks the 75th year of independence for Pakistan and India. Both were born out of the British empire through an immensely violent process. And the dominant account of Pakistani nationalism, or the struggle for Pakistan, to be more accurate, is premised on the notion that Muslims and Hindus could not possibly live in a situation where Muslims were relegated to the status of a perpetual and permanent minority. It is important to note here that the categories of religious minority and majority are constructions of colonial rule on the Subcontinent. Those categories also became the basis of politics in India. So Pakistan is a response—a refusal actually—to accept the status of a minority people, which is why this idea of civilizational difference grew to be immensely popular, especially in the years leading up to Pakistan’s birth.

There are, of course, challenges to this idea. All nation-states are works in progress. All self-proclaimed nations are in a process of becoming—they never quite arrive. There are attempts to continually refashion and further strengthen our ideas of belonging, nationhood, identity, and so on. Pakistani nationalism, and the idea of what it means to be a Muslim, as opposed to Hindu or other kinds of identities, is also something that is a work in progress.