From the Two-Nation Theory to Regional Autonomy Movements: Pakistan’s Identity Crisis


Pakistan, a nation that emerged from the partition of British India in 1947, has long been confronted with a persistent struggle to define its identity. The intricate tapestry of ethnicity, religion, nationalism, and foreign policy within the nation has played a pivotal role in shaping its socio-political terrain, offering both obstacles and possibilities that persistently impact its course. In a thorough examination, The New York Times delves into the intricate layers of Pakistan’s identity crisis, presenting a comprehensive analysis backed by verifiable data and a discerning evaluation of the prevailing challenges.

1. Cultural Diversity and Neglected Ethnic Rights

1.1 Ethnic Diversity and Fragmentation

Pakistan’s identity is intricately woven with its ethnic diversity. The country is home to various ethnic groups, including Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, Baloch, Muhajirs, and Gilgitis, among others. According to the 2017 Pakistan Census, Punjabis constitute the largest ethnic group, making up around 44.7% of the population, followed by Sindhis (14.1%), and Pashtuns (15.4%). The diverse ethnic makeup has often led to competition, conflict, and tensions between these groups, contributing to the complexity of Pakistan’s identity landscape.

1.2 Religious Identity

Religion plays a pivotal role in Pakistan’s identity, with Islam serving as a unifying factor. The 2017 Census indicates that 96.47% of Pakistan’s population adheres to Islam. However, within this religious framework, there is a struggle between various sects, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, which can create sectarian divides. Moreover, religious extremism and militancy have cast a shadow over Pakistan’s identity, both domestically and internationally.

1.3 Nationalism and the State

Pakistan’s nationalist identity revolves around its creation as a homeland for Muslims, but it is far from monolithic. Balancing the demands of nationalism and regionalism can be challenging. This is evident in the case of Balochistan, where nationalist sentiments and grievances have fueled a protracted insurgency. The same goes for Sindh and the Muhajir community in Karachi, both of which have sought greater autonomy.

In recent years, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have protested and expressed a desire to not be part of Pakistan. This serves as a testament to the feelings of neglect and marginalization that some regions in Pakistan experience, contributing to the nation’s identity crisis.

1.4 Language and Linguistic Diversity

Language is a critical component of identity in Pakistan. The country is linguistically diverse, with Urdu serving as the official language. The 2017 Census showed that only 7.57% of Pakistanis speak Urdu as their first language, whereas Punjabi (44.15%), Pashto (15.42%), and Sindhi (14.1%) are the most widely spoken languages. Balochi, Saraiki, and various regional languages are also prevalent, contributing to the linguistic complexity of Pakistan.

2. Foreign Policy Priorities and Internal Challenges

2.1 Misalignment of Foreign Policy Priorities

One of the most perplexing aspects of Pakistan’s identity crisis is the misalignment between its foreign policy priorities and pressing domestic issues. While the nation grapples with economic instability, inflation, and loans from international organizations like the IMF, foreign policy discussions often center around global conflicts, such as Palestine and Israel, Russia and Ukraine or Pakistan-India Issue over Kashmir. This discrepancy raises questions about the government’s priorities. By seemingly prioritizing international matters over internal challenges, it fosters a sense of detachment between the state and its people. This disconnect does little to alleviate the country’s identity crisis and only exacerbates the divisions within society.

2.2 The Israel-Palestine Issue and Its Distraction

The emphasis on international issues, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict, within Pakistan is perplexing given the pressing domestic concerns. While global events are undoubtedly significant, the government’s overemphasis on them over domestic issues is a cause for concern. This fixation raises doubts about the government’s effectiveness in nurturing a cohesive national identity.

3. Education and National Identity

3.1 Shift from Public to Private Education

The shifting landscape of education in Pakistan is crucial to understanding the identity crisis. The transition from government schools to private institutions is driven by the failure of the public education system in terms of quality and accessibility. As private schools proliferate, educational disparities between different socioeconomic classes widen. The government’s inability to provide consistent, quality education for all is a fundamental concern.

3.2 Impact on National Identity

Amidst these educational challenges, the continued focus on international issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, raises questions about the government’s priorities and its effectiveness in fostering a strong national identity. While global events are important, the government’s focus on them over domestic concerns calls into question its role in shaping a unified national identity.

4. Historical and Cultural Influences

The historical context of Pakistan’s formation plays a significant role in its identity crisis. The two-nation theory, which led to the creation of Pakistan as a separate state for Muslims, still shapes the nation’s self-identity. This theory emphasized the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims but downplayed the rich and diverse cultural history shared by the people of the subcontinent.  This historical perspective continues to influence the nation’s identity and its perception of itself in the larger context of South Asia.

5. Neglected Ethnic Rights and Calls for Separation

The neglect of ethnic rights in Pakistan has led to calls for separation in various regions. The Balochistan insurgency, which has persisted for years, is a stark example. Baloch nationalists have long asserted their grievances and sought greater autonomy from the central government. These demands for self-determination are rooted in the belief that the Baloch people have been marginalized and their rights denied. In recent years, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have expressed a desire to separate from Pakistan, with some even calling for integration with India. Their protests and sentiments underscore the failure of the state to address the concerns and aspirations of various ethnic and regional communities, deepening the identity crisis.

6. Economic Challenges and Inflation

Pakistan faces significant economic challenges, including inflation and dependence on financial assistance from international organizations like the IMF. High inflation rates have a direct impact on the cost of living, affecting the daily lives of ordinary Pakistanis. The economic instability further exacerbates the sense of uncertainty and discontent, contributing to the nation’s identity crisis.

7. Regional Autonomy Movements

The desire for greater autonomy is not confined to Balochistan. In Sindh, there have been longstanding calls for provincial autonomy. The Sindhi nationalist movement seeks more power for the provincial government and a greater share of resources. The Muhajir community in Karachi, which migrated to Pakistan during the partition, has also expressed its demands for political recognition and representation.

8. Foreign Relations and Geopolitical Factors

Pakistan’s foreign relations and its geopolitical context have a significant impact on its identity crisis. The country’s complex relations with neighboring India and Afghanistan, as well as its strategic alliance with the United States, influence both its domestic and international image. Additionally, Pakistan’s ties with China and its role in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have far-reaching implications for its identity.

9. The Role of Education in Fostering a National Identity

Education plays a pivotal role in shaping national identity. In Pakistan, the ongoing shift from public to private education has wide-reaching consequences. While private schools often offer higher-quality education, they are not accessible to all segments of society, exacerbating educational disparities. The government’s inability to provide consistent, quality education further perpetuates these disparities, undermining efforts to foster a unified national identity. The continued emphasis on international issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, within Pakistan’s education system raises questions about the government’s priorities. While global events are certainly important, the focus on them over domestic concerns seems misplaced and incongruent with the nation’s pressing needs.


Pakistan’s identity crisis is a dynamic and multifaceted challenge deeply rooted in the interplay of ethnicity, religion, nationalism, language, and history. To address these complexities, Pakistan needs to strike a balance between celebrating its diverse heritage while fostering a shared sense of nationhood. The neglect of ethnic rights, the misalignment of foreign policy priorities, the shift from public to private education, and the historical legacy of the two-nation theory all contribute to the nation’s identity crisis.

To move forward, Pakistan must address the concerns and aspirations of its various ethnic and regional communities. It must align its foreign policy decisions with the needs of its citizens and focus on internal development. By tackling these core issues, Pakistan can transition towards a more cohesive and harmonious national identity, fostering unity and stability in the process. A stronger national identity founded on respect for diversity and inclusive policies will be pivotal in shaping Pakistan’s future and mitigating the ongoing identity crisis that has troubled the nation for decades. To build a stronger, more inclusive national identity, Pakistan must recognize the diverse heritage that enriches the nation and ensure that all citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, have equal opportunities and rights.

In conclusion, Pakistan’s identity crisis is a complex and deeply rooted issue, characterized by its rich cultural diversity, unmet ethnic grievances, incongruous foreign policy priorities, and educational disparities. Addressing these challenges will require concerted efforts by the government, civil society, and the broader population. Pakistan’s journey toward a stronger, more inclusive national identity is ongoing, and it will be a critical factor in shaping the nation’s future.

Gulnaz Nawaz
Gulnaz Nawaz
I am Gulnaz Nawaz. I have completed my MPhil Education from university of the Punjab. Currently I'm working as a content writer. And can be reached at gulnaznawaz1551[at]