Survival of the plural

A singular identity breeds violence — look at the proud tribal Pakhtun and the adaptable, giving Punjabi.

Since the Taliban are Pakhtun, an imitative assumption of “single identity” is implied. Since the Taliban are Pakhtun, an imitative assumption of “single identity” is implied.
Written by Khaled Ahmed | Updated: May 30, 2014 12:09 am

An article in a Lahore Urdu monthly, Naya Zamana, of May 2014 by a friendly writer, Ubaidullah Ubaid — using a naming technique of the Taliban when they threaten someone with assassination — has upbraided me for defaming the Pakhtun by calling them violent.

I had quoted Amartya Sen from his book Identity and Violence: the Illusion of Destiny (2006) to stereoty-pe the violent among the people of Pakistan. My ancestors hailed from Kaniguram in South Waziristan, the heartland of the tribal Pakhtun. I don’t know if my forefathers really were Pakhtun or became like them by living among them; but they certainly behaved like them. In Jalundhar, then in Lahore, my elders often complained of the “lack of honour” (baighairati) of the Punjabi man.

In civil service, I believed the Punjabi to be without real identity. He was able to mould into other identities, as if he had several. He was seen as a fellow-traveller with powerful Pakhtun coteries. In college, the Punjabi was not a good brawler. He shrank from violence; as a Pakhtun, I didn’t. I was proud; I found the Punjabi lacking in pride and guts. My friends were mostly Pakhtuns. I sensed charisma in them that I didn’t find in Punjabis.

I proudly proclaimed the Pakhtun were great warriors in history, never defeated, and greatly admired by their enemies for gallantry. Sadly, in the past quarter century, I have seen the proud Pakhtun as a crushed people, their women and children crawling after food in the refugee camps of Pakistan. They were repeatedly made to leave their homes to allow the brave Taliban to defeat the armies of many states. They die of disease, are blown up by IEDs, still looking beautiful. The shameless Punjabi flourishes; the proud Pakhtun is pulverised by violence.

Sen never stereotyped, but he did speak of “single identity” being productive of violence. He thought “multiple identities” within individuals cooled their innate violence. However, stereotyping was done first by Ibn Khaldun, who saw violence in asabiya (group feeling), which is stronger in tribes and weaker in settled populations, but very intense in food-scarce mountains and deserts.

In Muqaddimah, his theorising swings between the asabiya of badawa (nomads) and asabiya-less hazara (city-dwellers). Asabiya is the feeling that binds the family, binds the tribe and, beyond the tribe, binds the state. It also leads to violence towards those seen as “different”. In states, it leads to war with neighbours. Ibn Khaldun thought the Arab nomads called Bedouin had the worst asabiya or hyper-asabiya, as Akbar Ahmed would later write. To survive against asabiya, the freedom to be different must be legally protected.

Violence has been seen in certain “single identity” groups. In Moscow, I saw Russians secretly admire their forefathers, the Cossacks, for being “brave” and “warlike”. Like the British, who admired Pakhtuns, …continued »

First Published on: May 30, 2014 12:02 amSingle Page Format
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