Of Qaum, Mulk And Sultanat: Ali Usman Qasmi’s Study Of National Belonging And The Pakistani State

The historian's recent work looks at how in Pakistan's context, citizenship differs from nationality - which is translated as qaum

Of Qaum, Mulk And Sultanat: Ali Usman Qasmi’s Study Of National Belonging And The Pakistani State

Dr Ali Usman Qasmi has several published books and papers and is well-known as an important historian of South Asia. While his earlier work has been more focused upon certain lesser-known aspects of the relationship of Islam with the state and society of Pakistan, this book examines the construction of the identity of the state. This begins with arriving at an official understanding of who its citizens are or, as it turns out, should be. Thus, the use of the word ‘citizen’ is by no means transparent and it is the problematising of it which constitutes the introduction of this scholarly study examines first.

Qasmi begins the introduction with cases of people desiring a certain citizenship and being either granted or denied it. Citizenship, on the face of it, seems to be a mater of “designating who is a legal member of a political community” (p 5). But the bureaucracy issuing the papers to ‘designate’ a citizen has an ideology of belonging which transforms this legal act into an ideological enterprise. Citizenship, then, differs from nationality, roughly translated as qaum, in the Pakistani context. And, since inclusion into this constructed collectivity, is a feature of belonging—itself a highly ideological construct—this is far more an exercise in defining the ‘Other’ and exclusions rather than inclusions. Qasmi delves deep into a lot of theoretical literature, some in rather inaccessible language as theory often tends to be, to make the following point:

“There is much more to the notion of belonging, and to national imagination, that supersedes the law. It is thus important to historicize transitions from the concepts of citizen to that of the nation or qaum, and from the legal to the metaphorical, exploring their mutually dependent yet problematic relationships”(p 108).

Nor does he confine himself to theory alone. In the next chapter, intriguingly called “Noah’s Ark,” the author offers empirical evidence which support his contentions. This evidence comes from the files of the government of Pakistan about the migrants from India. The ministries of law and labour dealt with cases of who would be granted a citizenship of the new state. For their officials some citizens were, so to speak, more equal than others. These, of course, were Muslims since, in the mind of officialdom and articulate citizens (or, at least sections of them), Pakistan was a Muslim homeland. Hindu migrants, as an official pointed out, were suspect (p 76) and could not be accommodated as easily as Muslims. The gist of the matter is that “there is much more to the notion of belonging, and to national imagination, that supersedes the law.” (p 108). In short, the bureaucracy, unlike the idealised version of it conceived by Max Weber, chooses ideology over rationality and bends the law to suit its underlying aims.

The next chapter (no 2) dwells upon a different dimension of the construction of the image of the state i.e. constructing it on the foundation of Islam. This chapter too has a lot of empirical evidence, this time from the legislative assembly debates of the 1950s, the reports of the Islamic scholars (the ulema) and the responses of the government. The thorny issue was which Islam? Whose Islam? i.e. Islam as interpreted by the ulema or that of modernist politicians, intellectuals and media persons. Moreover, even the ulema did not have a unified, seamless, uncomplicated narrative about Islam. They did, however, agree on certain prohibitions (mostly related to women’s visibility, drinking and Western sartorial and other fashions) and exclusions (of minorities from positions of power) but these were just what the liberal politicians, intellectuals and, above all, the religious minorities feared.

Among other things, he focuses upon the documents found in the archives of the Board of Talimat-e-Islamiyah. These papers are newfound evidence and are, therefore, of great value. The ulema wrote a report in 1950 arguing that Pakistan was an ideological not a national state. This implied that no non-Muslim could be the head of the state and women could not participate in public life as equal partners. The government, caught in its own rhetoric of establishing Islam as the legal foundation of the state, conceded that the head of the state would, indeed, be a Muslim. However, as to women, ambiguity and rhetorical flourishes were used instead of clearcut theoretical stands. One fundamental issue of the whole debate crystallised into the name of the new state: Islamic republic? Republic? Or something else? What would the name signify? On this the legislators differed and the author sums up the gist of their arguments as follows:

“Pakistani assembly members posited a different idea of the common good, and of equality and rights, for an alternative imagining of and ideational basis for the republic” (p 152).

In the end, the politicians, had to agree to the nomenclature of the Islamic state (as opposed to the Muslim state) but what it would mean in real functions and daily lives of the citizens was yet to come. As Qasmi says, this title (Islamic state) was a “descriptivist title”—a signifier—”but with a distinct set of social correlates, public enunciations, and political articulations (p 172).

These social correlates, symbolic of inclusivity, would be the national flag and the national anthem along with sartorial, linguistic and other semiotic features which the rest of the book attempts to describe. First, then, the flag and the anthem (chapter 3). Much of the information in this chapter, though full of details even about the kind of colour or cloth to be used for the flag and the implication of the Persianised vocabulary of the anthem, is so unknown and new that the details appear as boons and not excesses. It is not a case of not being able to see the wood because of the trees but of making the trees visible for the first time in our historiography so that one can see the wood after all. One is, indeed, surprised how much energy and time the functionaries of the state, intellectuals, ideologues and politicians actually dissipated on matters which initially appear as trivial. They are, as it emerges, far from being trivial since they are pregnant with ideological significance. They are the scripting of the new state which is obsessed with the idea of distancing itself from what it called “Hindu India’. Another political and ideological imperative is to exorcise the fissiparous threat of difference—ethnic, religious, linguistic, class and primordial (biradari)—to imagine a unified qaum united by symbols like the flag and the anthem (which nobody could easily comprehend thus ensuring a certain flattening of linguistically divergent collectivities).

Chapter 4 (“Over the Moon”) is about a debate which we witness every year and will do so in 2024 when the coming month of fasting (Ramzan) ends. The point is whether the state, in its quest for homogenisation and unification inherent in the logic of a single nation, celebrates events related to the sight of the moon (the Eid after the fasting month especially) or not. Traditionally the ulema would rely on local evidence as the concept of the nation, in the modern sense, had not percolated their worldview. Now, with this overriding concept and the newly developed modern methods of communication and using instruments to sight the moon, the state as well as members of the educated civil society considered the ulema’s local vision outdated. The ulema on their part first denied the reliability of scientific tools and later incorporated their limited use so long as they were the users or, in the final analysis, the arbiters of the decision following their use. In this chapter Qasmi makes an important point which is that, at some level, the ulema defied the globalisation of time which used to be a local preserve earlier.

Ulema’s responses to the regulation of lunar calendar show that the history of global standard time is far from a seamless morphing of “disciplinary power of new scientific practices” to passive recipients (pp 282-283).

However, in the next paragraph, the author concludes that this defiance was not far-reaching nor ideologically sustainable since it was actually a desire to remain ‘guardians of change.’ Once this was achieved, the ulema were reconciled to the theoretical assumptions of global time with its centre upon Greenwich. The ulema made it a matter of wilaya (state authority) whereas it could also be treated as a matter of the horizon on which the moon becomes visible (matala) or, in fact, only a matter of sight (ruet). The first is a political matter and plays into the hands of imaginers of collectivities (such as the nation-state and the ulema themselves); the second is a matter of geography since the moon does not become visible everywhere at the same time and the third is a matter of local knowledge (clouds could cover the moon at some place). While in Pakistan the wilaya, for the ulema, is the Pakistani state subject, of course, to their own interpretation of its legitimacy. However, there are also ulema –not necessarily resident in Pakistan--who aspire to an imagined Islamic community (millat-e-Islamia) and one of its manifestations is the aspiration of the Muslim diaspora settled in countries as geographically separated as Australia and north America to celebrate Eid on the same day. Thus, the sighting of the moon of the Eid is a very significant aspect of Pakistan’s creation of national identity and the ulema’s custodianship of national authority. One wonders why it had received no scholarly attention before.

Chapter 5 is on the equally important but understudied subjects of the national archive, the calendar, names of roads and museums. Each of these things deal with collective memory. Thus, each required intensive input by the officials of the state. The archives had to be brought out of colonial and Indian custody and divided according to not only regional but also religious share. Thus, Pakistan demanded Mughal artifacts in India because the Mughals were Muslims and was ready to give away the Sanskritic and Hindu artifacts found in the Pakistan areas. However, for ideological reasons, the Buddhist artifacts were claimed as that served the exclusionary purposes of othering only Hinduism while claiming the ancient roots of the areas comprising Pakistan (in this case West Pakistan which, in any case, was the centre of attention). The statues of the colonial authorities, as well as those of Hindu leaders and philanthropists, were also removed. In short, the idea was to present to the senses a sanitised picture of Pakistan which was as free of Hindu and colonial historical reminders as possible. Roads were named after Muslim icons, once again for the same purpose, though provinces (Bengal and Punjab for instance) could not be despite ideas about making them different from their Indian namesakes.

All this could not go without constituting or revisiting norms of linguistic politeness. This concerns, inter alia, addressing people. Is one to call people mister, miss, madam and sir or would an Islamic form of address be more appropriate. Among other things, and this makes for risibility, one suggestion was to call everybody Sayyid but, as it happens, those who traced their lineage to the children of the Caliph Ali and daughter of the Prophet (PBUH), objected as this would jeopardise their high spiritual status in society. Similarly, there was much agonising about laying out the red carpet for former rulers of states on the assumption that Pakistan was an egalitarian society. However, in reality, hierarchies remained intact though the former rulers were incorporated into the state for reasons of politics and economics rather than the unrealisable dream of egalitarianism.

This review has only dwelt upon the major findings of Ali Usman Qasmi’s truly original and profoundly serious scholarly study of the ways in which the state, the intellectuals, the ulema and the articulate citizens imagined, scripted and narrativised the Pakistani state. It is firmly girded in a very erudite theoretical base and is fully supported by empirical evidence from archives which have not been used at all, or used but for other purposes, by previous scholars. I think this is one of those rare works which are worthy of being called milestones in South Asian studies and societal and statist identity-formation. I recommend it to all readers and especially to students of history and politics.