People vote for those candidates and campaigns with which they can associate. This familiarisation gives them an illusory hope for representation in the political scene. In Pakistan voting on the basis of identity had formalised itself as a norm, however, last year, after decades of familiarisation with dominant identities, people voted for a populist leader whose two-decade long political campaign has urged the people to rethink the ubiquitous status quo and understand the grievances that sustain it.

But looking at identities closely, one realises that what essentially perpetuates the use of these is the protection of an ideologue.  

These ideologues are interpreted as self-identifying governable, norms and values, which ensure that an ethnic or religious group is kept intact. In Pakistan, a number of pre-Partition ideologues have managed to breathe through the gaping holes, under coarse, white-wash of fragmented nationalism that has plastered much of history. There are a number of religious as well as ethnic minority groups who govern their ideologues under outfits that fit, yet the greater nationalist narrative has been unable to fit them all under the same umbrella.

The state of Pakistan was created primarily by Muslims so that they could practice their religion (the individual), and take part in the mainstream political system (the nationalist). Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the nation, upon the declaration of a separate homeland proclaimed “You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

 A sentiment that resonated with millions across the world. However, this idea of separate identities hasn’t boded well for the state and we see a country where the communal experience of each grouping; be it on the basis of religious, ethnic, socio-economic distinctions, is much different than the rest. The idea of the individual and the nationalist; the translation of what is held by one and can be shared amongst many as a prominent ideologue never completely materialised. Nor has this transition been identified as significant. Therefore, we have brands of people across varying spectrums of these distinctions with which they identify themselves and use the political agencies to gain relevance in the mainstream political system. This particularly stems from the idea that those belonging and disseminating the society from the same group would have a better idea of the needs of the community, and would thus better serve their interests. While this has been counterproductive to the idea of a federation, has also not worked for the maturation of democracy, until a populist vote ushered in a new government which is still struggling to keep its performance afloat of bridging these gaps.

During last year, a group of people, belonging from the north-western war-torn area of Waziristan formalised themselves under the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). This group was quick to gain momentum and highlighted those aspects of the War on Terror which have seeped deep into our national narrative and affected the socio-economic fabric of those who’ve been close witnesses of the wave of militancy. While talking to Ismat Shahjahan, one of the pioneers of the PTM at Faiz International Festival - a yearly event where the state’s leftists celebrate their relevance, I was reminded of the racial profiling, the negligence of the state’s institutions, and the state of amnesia that has befallen on these Pashtuns. This same amnesic state has thereupon translated into the national narrative whereby we believe in a Pashtun that is a resilient, radical fighter, and little is known of their personal identifiers. This isolation from the national discourse is what has led to the socio-economic marginalisation of an entire community, and ultimately formalised them to push against the state by contesting and securing two National Assembly seats in the 2018 general elections. 

However, the party hasn’t lost its vigour and their victory signifies that the use of identity has worked in favour of some, at the expense of others. And while the grievances of movements like the PTM have been as a consequence of ubiquitous Right-wing politics in Pakistan, highlighting this as an ethnic struggle gives them legitimacy to desire for a Leftist society where groupings aren’t biased against, and each individual has a chance at a better life. 

So, while people were first sceptical of the ‘ethnic struggle’ as it came to be known, quickly realised the precarious nature in which politics of the state have persisted for so long. The movement puts the burden of the blame on the security and intelligence establishment, and the political apparatus who while trying to understand the magnitude of the war, haven’t so far been able to incorporate the demands for local rights in the national security discourse.


Where the state primarily struggles with is in giving a human angle to this security discourse. While people have largely been sceptical about the political involvement of military in the country, they still consider it to be the most reliable and disciplined institution; and is often looked upon for the survival of the state. As was evidenced in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack and several preceding it, tensions on the border or the sanctity of the state (as was the case when Pakistan became a front-line state in the War on Terror) unites people who rely on the agencies of the security and intelligence for their survival. Thus, a somewhat freedom movement, with sloganeering that targets the same institution for the ongoing militancy, is taken as a threat to the state and serves a devastating blow to a commonly-held identifier.

Albeit, the last government approved the merger of the afflicted areas (Federally Administered Tribal Areas, FATA) with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formal procedures outside of processionary talks have yet to take place. Hence, until the mainstreaming isn’t a rigorous process of socio-economic demarginalization of this group, their identifiers that sustain them will only further push against the national narrative that has successively failed to identify and incorporate them. 

This is only a part of a much larger debate surrounding nationalism and the power structures that give it relevance. The challenge for the present government is to develop a national narrative which goes beyond the identities and addresses the underlying self-sustaining socio-economic linkages through political representation in a populist government.