The South Asian identity crisis By Farrukh Khan Pitafi

Last November, Britain’s pro-Brexit Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel was forced to resign after being accused of violating the ministerial code of conduct. As far as media reports go, the British politician of Indian descent had met Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several times (13 in total) in the presence of lobbyist Lord Polak without disclosing them to the British authorities. Following those meetings she had recommended that the Department of International Development give international aid to Israeli Army-run hospitals in Golan Heights. This ostensibly was a conflict of interest and a breach of the aforementioned ministerial code. Patel was also critical of Britain’s aid to the Palestinian authorities. Doesn’t it remind you of any American politician?
On March 27, 2017, thirty-one-year-old Pakistani Mustufa Haidar Syed-Naqfi was sentenced to four years and three months in prison “for working for a foreign intelligence service” by Berlin’s superior court. This foreign intelligence was reported to be the Quds Force of Iran, the foreign operations wing of the elite Revolutionary Guards and had nothing to do with Pakistan. Syed-Naqfi compiled dossiers on a former president of German-Israel society and a French Israeli professor at a university in Paris. These two individuals were potential targets for Iranian attacks.
Do these examples confuse you? Immigrant communities usually have hybrid identities. But their loyalties are usually limited to the countries of their residence and of origin. Here you see a British politician of Indian origin landing in hot soup for a third country. Similarly, a Pakistani spying in Germany for a third nation. Amazingly, these two countries are known for their confrontation. But that is not all. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, also of Indian origin, recently threatened 128 members of the UN General Assembly (which included India) and the UN itself for passing a resolution condemning the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. In a separate talk at AIPAC, Haley told the audience that her high heels were meant to kick Israel bashers, how she had successfully opposed the nomination of a Palestinian to a high position at the UN and how she forced the UN chief to pull the Falk Report that compared Israel to an apartheid state. At least in consistent reports we find Pakistan in a dire condition. On a number of occasions, reports have surfaced stating that in the Syrian civil war people of Pakistani origin might be fighting on both/all sides of the divide.
Why do these people take pride in supporting a country which is neither of their origin nor their residence? Is it only about their desire to attach themselves to the visible movers and shakers in the world and if so why not the countries of their origin which are not insignificant by any means? Is it by anyway linked to the perception or misperception that the countries they are aligning with are closest allies of their countries of origin? Or it is simply because India and Pakistan do not have significant appeal for them as these countries do? Finally, does this have anything to do with the toxic environment of communal hostility in South Asia? Well, the answers to all these questions are pretty complicated.
Does this have to do with India-Pakistan hostility? I can understand why a person of Indian origin would want to align with Israel but why would a Pakistani spy for Iran, a state often found closer to India than Pakistan, or join fanatic groups fighting in Syria? Perhaps it has something to do with how the religious identities in South Asia have emerged. Muslims of South Asia were keen to associate themselves with the Arab invaders. As Ayesha Jalal points out in her book The Struggle for Pakistan so powerful was this pull that one of the nation’s earliest cabinet ministers suggested that Arabic be adopted as the national language of the nascent country and that the language would become prevalent within 50 years. Such an attempt could not obscure the fact that Pakistanis are not Arabs and that the language is not germane to the local culture. Similarly, the rapid Sanskritisation of Hindi, a language originally virtually identical to Urdu except in script, manifests the Indian desire to distance itself from its Muslim heritage. But in her article titled Identity Crisis: Rethinking the Politics of Communtiy and Region in South Asia published in the Harvard International Review on May 6, 2006, Jalal also warns us of the troubles with the labels. “The image of essentialised religious communities locked in grim battle gives a very distorted perspective on the subcontinent’s conflicting politics of identity and discourses of contested sovereignty,” she observed.
Amin Maalouf, the French-Lebanese novelist, has written a beautiful book titled In the Name of Identity in which he stresses the importance of understanding that people can live with multiple identities in peace and that no religion by nature is violent. Yet the BJP in India strongly objected to neologism ‘saffron terrorism’ when it was used during the previous government’s tenure. Apparently, Hindus were not capable of terrorism which was specific to one religion alone. Mind you, India is among a few countries which were very vocal against terrorism much before 9/11. Maalouf also shows how any man can be radicalised irrespective of his faith or geography.
In South Asia’s case it seems that the multiple identities got weaponised. Muslims who viewed themselves as out of power rulers of India felt marginalised and doubled down on their identity. Indian Hindus who constantly felt subjugated by foreign rulers for centuries worked to harden their identity. When did this happen? We can only guess. In Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India Akshaya Mukul has given a detailed account of how saffron India was born and evolved into the current shape. If Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India is any guide the seeds of discord were sown by the British Raj. But things can’t be as simple. This toxic environment must have taken a millennium to grow. But as things stand today India vs Pakistan, Hindu vs Muslims or Muslims vs the rest are demarcators that have defined religious identities in South Asia at loggerheads with each other. So, is it unthinkable that a Pakistani abroad would want to align with the visible influencers of political Islam like, say, Iran or the Arab world? Or that an Indian there may want to be associated with the country that is visibly at odds with the Muslim world? I think not.
As we progress in the 21st century this clash/crisis of identities doesn’t do justice to the history or cultural richness of South Asia. It ensures further radicalisation. And since South Asians are people of incredible talent it adds to the global political warming. South Asians both at home and abroad will have to relent some day and reflect on the futility of this escalation. Until then, both the region and the world are not safe.


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