Identity politics in Pakistan has reached a new peak leaving the country in a new perilous situation. It refers to the political propensities of the people of a specific religion, sect, race, ethnicity, class, or any other social group to organize around an interest and the vow to advance it. In other words, it seeks recognition in a dogmatic way by demonizing others and holding them responsible for the grievances the social group suffers from; however actual or perceived.

Identity politics is not about what you think, rather it is about who you are. In heterogenous societies these exclusionary sentiments push a nation from inclusion to division and keep slicing it into smaller fragments.

In its many facets, identity politics appeals to the human emotions and promisesthe salvation for the people identified with. Once it gains impetus, it inescapably instills hate against other social group [s] that ultimately shakes the very foundations of the state and society.

In this regard, recently, identity-based political discourses inspired a change of people’s territorial priorities in Iraq (Kurdistan) and Spain (Catalonia): where large segments of populace, previously in favor of greater autonomy, moved to the path of separatism.

A renowned American scholar Francis Fukuyamaalso warns about it, citing identity politics asa threat to democracies that has the potential to divert the energy away from acute societal issues, such as rising economic inequality.

In case of Pakistan, resurgence of primordial idioms of identity politics in discursive space of the country is not a new phenomenon. In the past, like many other postcolonial societies, the absence of a strong national identity [though it did use religion as a unifying force to harness the diverse societal potentials], Punjab-centric nexus, and a resultant sense of persecution gave rise to the ethno-lingual identities. Consistent with the ground realities, many trace the roots of this disaffection into a series of military rules and disproportional resource allocation among different geographic entities of the federation. Although a failure in theBengali case, the state managed and contained other ethno-national movements with considerable success.

However, the recent sensation, equipped with the firearm of uncontrollable and invulnerable media has registered a strong appeal that people succumb to. Previous episodes failed to cultivate social mobilization, as people were not exposed to media and communication technology that was primitive in scope and scale. But, the turn of century, introduced communication and information revolutions, where Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other platforms have become ‘weapons of the ambitious’ for their ‘re-info-lutions’, leaving behind states for serious contemplation in a world that is rife with regime change, color revolutions, and hybrid warfare.

Selective representations have become a new norm in digital age identity politics. Carefully tailored and distorted pieces of information with mind-numbing metaphors are spread in such a way that itblurs the vision of reality. When state institutions work, even they are represented inpejorative terms, such as ‘Mohajirs are being targeted’, ‘Punjabi army’, ‘Pashtun FC’, ‘Shia police officer’, ‘Baloch Chief Minister’, ‘Saraiki CM is a failure’ ‘China-Punjab Economic Corridor’, and many more.

Fencing of Pak-Afghan border is portrayed as an effort of dividing Pashtuns, dam construction is dubbed as depriving Sindh from its rightful waters, and diplomatic relations with Iran are labeled against Sunnis. These identity-rendering rhetoric’s inevitably have dividing tendencies that stir the emotions of involved social groups.

Images with provocative captions can do the job better than tanks and cannons to the detriment of the states. These expressions and representations are zero-sum in outcomes, oppositional in rationale, andare arranged in such a way that tells which group is under-privileged and who is enjoying power. Owing to its strong commitment to constructionism, identity politics is critical in tone, deconstructionist in content, postmodernist in character, and has old revolutionary rigor as mobilizing force.

Today, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Pashtun, Baloch, Saraiki, Gilgiti, Shia, Christiansall feel if they are persecuted and discriminated. No one seems to be the advocate of one Pakistan. Ethnic entities’ grievances vis-à-vis Punjab have many solid reasons; however, an ordinary Punjabi is equally deprived as inhabitants of any other part of the country. The elite, that makes the socio-institutional and politico-economic structures in Pakistan, has no ethnic face; but an economic one. Its composition has representation of all ethnic groups, predominantly Punjabis, Pashtuns, and Sindhis. They exploit indiscriminately and use Punjab to hide behind. The epistemology of the claim, “Punjabis have eaten up everything”, remains invalid.

Not everything is gloomy about identity politics. It has a baggage of challenges and opportunities: Pakistan can use this all-pervasive pseudo-awareness as an opportunity for its [Pakistan’s] rightful democratic future by allaying the anxieties of marginalized segments; or otherwise, it can choose to let this charged emotional environment unheeded to take a worse course. By opting for the first option, Pakistan can not only foment a strong national identity by undermining other parochial identities but also dispel the aspirations for territorial preference.

The writer is a PhD (IR) Candidate at National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan, and Research Fellow at the University of Maryland, USA

Published in Daily Times, February 10th 2019.