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The Pakistani Diaspora in the US and Celebrating Independence Day

In the last week Pakistanis around the world celebrated Pakistan’s 71st Independence Day since the country was founded in 1947. Around this time every year one can begin to see the flaunting of green and white colors and sense a general surge of prideful and nationalist sentiments, as would be expected of any community celebrating the independence of its nation-state.

However, each year these celebrations make me feel increasingly uneasy, for a variety of issues, some more explicit than others. Because the experiences and upbringings of people of Pakistani origin, in this case in the United States, are fundamentally distinct from those of people born and raised in Pakistan, these nationalistic expressions carry more complex and even problematic implications.

While these thoughts may also be applicable to other diasporic South Asian communities, the “diaspora” discussed in this piece refers to the Pakistani-American diaspora, specifically the youth, and are based on my own understandings and experiences related to this topic. That being said, I would like to make clear that I myself am not exempt from the following practices in both my discourse and actions.

First, the manner in which I have witnessed the communities around me celebrate Independence Day is troubling to me because it resembles, even incorporates nationalist tendencies that ultimately obstruct unity and the path to peace with other societies. Take one instance for example, where I witnessed a video of a family passionately chanting, “Pakistan zindabad, Hindustan murdabad”, or “long live Pakistan, death to India”. This type of discourse implies that the success and livelihood of one nation and its peoples is incompatible with the success of the other — a concept entirely false and diluted. It is also exemplary of the blinding nature of nationalism that so easily “otherizes” people into groups based on their affiliations to (man-made) geographic boundaries.

Wagah Border, Punjab

Moreover, diaspora communities in their celebration of Pakistan almost always ignore the wide range of dire issues that exist in the country, namely those that ostracize and terrorize minority communities and discriminate against women. Pakistan is notorious for its mistreatment of these groups. Instead of posting “Pakistan zindabad” come every August 14, it is, at the very least, the duty of Pakistanis everywhere to call out injustice in all forms, and especially of the Western, American diaspora, a large part of which remains silent in regards to these acts of violence.

Another reason why I am troubled by the active celebration of Independence Day among diaspora communities is because it paints Independence and Partition as a jovial and festive event when in reality we are aware that it was anything but. The violence, rioting, chaos, and mayhem that was witnessed and experienced by our grandparents continue to haunt the memories of elders and generations that follow.

What exactly are we celebrating — independence from what? If the answer is India, then we are playing directly into the hands of the colonial narrative that divided, conquered, exploited, and plundered the people and resources of the Indian subcontinent. We perpetuate the idea that Pakistanis and Indians are incapable of coexisting, further entrenching ourselves into delusional spheres that disregard a common, pre-colonial, shared past. And though I do believe that independence from the British Empire is a triumph worthy of celebration, this idea still undercuts the postcolonial worldview that the British rampaged and colonized many parts of the world in which they did not belong in the first place.

Lastly, I have observed that diaspora youth vocalizing their praise for Independence is telling of other questionable trends that exist among our communities. They tend to romanticize the homeland, which is often indicative of the privilege they possess. Visiting only touristy areas, staying in hotels, dining at expensive restaurants and shopping at high-end, hyper-commercialized shopping centers provide them with a warped image of a nation that still struggles to provide stable electricity and clean drinking water to many of its cities and villages.

With the rise of postcolonial studies and increasing scrutiny of white neoliberal culture, I have observed that many American-born Pakistanis are quick to show off certain aspects of their culture, usually garb and cuisine, to portray themselves as “exotic”, “cultured”, and not white. This tendency reduces ones cultural heritage and background to simply materialistic terms, when these tokens of identity are in actuality smaller (yet important) components of a more comprehensive picture of an entire civilization’s way of life. I perceive the celebration of Independence Day as yet another practice comprised of one’s desire to showcase their “foreignness” and links to an external body.

Additionally, a good number of diasporic youth that engage in ostentatious practices cannot speak, or more correctly, read and write, in their parent’s or grandparent’s native tongue, which is fine because not all have the resources and outlets to be able to do so, but this advances the notion that their understanding of cultural identity and heritage is confined to physically visible attributes. Many of them do not often visit their homelands (either by choice or by circumstantial restrictions), which distances themselves even farther from the realities of the home country.

My point being that there is nothing wrong with being prideful of one’s ethnicity but there is a problem with being ignorant of the context of one’s ethnicity that often leads to nationalist dialogue. Also, I believe it is reasonable to expect people that clearly identify and take pride in being Pakistani or South Asian in general, to have a respectable understanding of their own histories so as not to caricaturize and exploit their ethnicity and origin, in an effort to accumulate social capital.

Much of what I have discussed is a reminder to myself first and foremost of my spatio-temporal position in relation to my ethnic makeup and heritage. I am proud of my background, of where my parents and elders originate, and my family’s history. However, I will never let this pride blind me from acknowledging that the creation of Pakistan brought inconceivable hardships to countless individuals, and that the country’s unstable political fabric and subpar performance of its leaders has fostered an environment that burdens the lives of many of its residents.

For the reasons mentioned, I don’t think the discomfort that accompanies Independence Day will subdue for the years to come as long as we continue to idealize some parts of our identities while neglecting others. Independence Day serves as a reminder that nationalism is a dangerous and divisive tool that has throughout history turned neighbors into enemies and friends into foes, and continues to do so.