According to news published in a local paper earlier this week Dr. Wiqar Ali Shah, a professor of history at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad, was removed from his post as the director of the National Institute of Cultural and Historical Research (NIHCR) allegedly because of comments he made at a conference on Sindh’s history and culture at Shah Abdul Latif University in Kahirpur. Speaking on the theme of ‘Identity Crisis and the Responsibilities of Present Pakistani Historians’, Dr. Shah was reported to have called for a greater emphasis on documenting and narrating regional histories in Pakistan, highlighting the roles played by figures like G. M. Syed, Bacha Khan, and Bhagat Singh, with this being a necessary corrective to a mainstream nationalist historical discourse characterized by the omission of these aspects of Pakistan’s past, as well as a lack of sensitivity to Pakistan ethnic and cultural diversity. It has been claimed that complaints were made to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) regarding the ‘anti-Pakistan’ nature of Dr. Shah’s argument, prompting the Vice-Chancellor of QAU to take action against him.

At the outset, it is important to clarify that there is no definitive evidence confirming that Dr. Shah was removed from his position on the basis of his opinions. For its part, QAU has steadfastly stated that the termination of Dr. Shah’s directorship at the NIHCR was a ‘routine matter’. However, the timing of this move appears to be more than just coincidental, and the claims being made about the HEC’s ideological bias seem plausible given the organization’s past record in this area. After all, it was only a year ago that the HEC issued an infamous directive calling on higher education institutions to, ‘remain vigilant and forestall any activity that in any manner challenge(s) the ideology and principles of Pakistan, and/or perspective of the Government of Pakistan thereof’.

Assuming that, in the case of Dr. Shah, the HEC was indeed spurred into action by an alleged assault on the ideology of Pakistan, it is worth considering exactly what this ideology is and why the state is so loath to expose it to even the slightest amount of critical scrutiny. Put simply, the official version of the ideology of Pakistan is constructed around a few fundamental points. Firstly, as per the Two-Nation Theory, Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent were always separate and distinct communities with discrete beliefs, cultural practices, and political aspirations. Secondly, in the context of the Two-Nation Theory, the creation of Pakistan as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims was an inevitable necessity given the alleged impossibility of peaceful Hindu-Muslim coexistence. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in the contemporary period, the invocation of Islam as the basis upon which Pakistani nationhood was constructed meant that it was to be the key marker of identity unifying the country’s otherwise diverse population; differences rooted in ethnicity, language, caste, and culture were to be subsumed within the broader rhetoric of Islamic nationalism, with a common religious heritage rendering other expressions of identity irrelevant.

This emphasis on Pakistan’s Islamic foundations and characteristics should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been through this country’s schooling system. It is a story that is reproduced in classrooms across the country everyday, and is echoed by the government and the media. In this, Pakistan is not unique. After all, countries around the world construct and disseminate nationalist narratives that reinforce notions of collective identity and solidarity; in the United States, children will rarely hear much about the genocide of Native Americans, just as students across the United Kingdom will still be told that colonialism was not necessarily a bad thing. In Japan, there is still an official reluctance to acknowledge, let alone apologize for, atrocities committed during the Second World War (and the colonization of Korea), and BJP-led governments in India have long been notorious for their attempts to exclude India’s periods of Muslim rule from the official school curriculum.

What this demonstrates, however, is that far from being grounded in objective facts, national narratives are fundamentally political and always designed to amplify and project particular agendas. Pakistan is no exception; as has long been pointed out by scholars and academics within and outside Pakistan, the use of religion as the ideological basis upon which to define Pakistani nationhood is rife with problems. In addition to presenting a distorted and incomplete view of history that perpetuates the idea that a ‘Hindu’ India will forever remain antagonistic to Pakistan, the internal effects of a narrowly-defined religious nationalism are also easy to see; minority religious communities continue to be subjected to escalating levels of de facto and de jure discrimination, and the non-Punjabi parts of the country see the imposition of the official nationalist project as coming at the expense of their unique cultures and histories. This sense of marginalization is only aggravated by the perception that Punjab controls the economic, military, and administrative levers of power in the country.

Exactly forty-four years ago, the birth of Bangladesh was seen as proof that Islam alone was not sufficient to keep the people of Pakistan united. This is a plausible, idea although it is important to place it in its proper content. If anything, the events of 1971 show that no amount of ideological rhetoric can serve to indefinitely legitimate exploitation and oppression. Most people would agree that East Pakistan was not treated well by the predominantly Punjabi establishment in West Pakistan, and that the creation of Bangladesh was a direct consequence of the economic and cultural marginalization of Bengal within Pakistan. Consequently, had this not taken place, and had a potential Pakistani federation treated its constituent parts with more respect, things might have turned out differently.

Unfortunately, the establishment in Pakistan has always drawn the wrong lessons from 1971, continuing to view ethno-nationalism as a destructive force borne out of foreign machinations rather than as a symptom of a deeply unequal political system that continues to discriminate against the smaller provinces. As evidence from around the world shows, ethnically fragmented societies do better when difference and diversity are embraced, not erased. The opposite happens in Pakistan, where the spectre of secession has led to the pursuit of counter-productive policies, particularly in Balochistan, that have only exacerbated existing grievances.

As such, it is not difficult to see why Dr. Shah’s call for regional histories might be misconstrued as an attack on Pakistan; after all, acknowledging the existence of ethnic difference in Pakistan would necessarily undermine notions of nationhood based solely on religion, and would also raise uncomfortable questions about other issues – the treatment of religious minorities, relations with India, and continued Punjabi dominance within Pakistan. However, it is important to realize that these are questions that must be debated and discussed if the myriad problems plaguing Pakistan are to be addressed in a meaningful and substantive way. Ignoring them will not make them go away, and it is manifestly evident that taking refuge in the status quo will not work.

Debate and critique are the stock-in-trade of any serious academic and Dr. Shah was absolutely correct to highlight shortcomings with the official historical discourse in Pakistan. Not only is labeling this anti-Pakistan disingenuous, it is also dangerous given that it is precisely these discussions that can help to secure a fairer and more stable future for Pakistan.