Why are they called “Stans” and why is “Pak-i-Stan” unique?

Who can forget the wit of Donald Rumsfeld and especially his question about all the “Stans”. Mr. Rumsfeld was joking about the fact that names of many countries in Central Asia featured “stan”as a suffix. You have to wonder whether Mr. Rumsfeld’s ignorance had a lot to do with the troubles America faces today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Sanskrut or Indo-Aryan word for an abode or a  place is “Sthan”. The pronunciation of a joint “t” and “h” sound is hard. So, in ordinary usage, the letter “h” was dropped and Sthan became Stan. The Aryan influence was prevalent from India northward up to Russia and westward across Persia into Iraq. As a result, most ethnic groups in Central Asia called their regions by the name of the ethic group followed by “stan”.

So,
the land of Afghans was named “Afghan-i-Stan“, the land of Uzbeks was named “Uzbek-i-Stan“, the land of  the Tajiks was named “Tajik-i-Stan“,the land of Baluchis was named “Baluch-i-Stan” and so on.

Pak-i-Stan is the only place that does not fit this nomenclature. Pakistan was created as a breakaway state from India, as a self-rule for Indian states that had a Muslim majority. The state consisted of two parts – a West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) and an East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) separated by over a thousand miles of Indian territory.

Without a historical, geographical or a natural basis, what could they call the new state?

So they called it “Pak-i-Stan” or the land of the “Pak” or the “Pure”.  If a name could cast a pall over the future of a country, perhaps the name “Pak-i-Stan” did.

Once you call your country as a place for the pure, it becomes an invitation for the radical elements to root out, to expel or to cleanse the country of people who are not “pure” enough. The “impure” designation could be given to people:


  • who are not Muslims,

  • people of other Muslim beliefs who are not as “pure” as the Sunni majority; for example, the Ahmadiya Muslims – (Wikipedia reports that parliament in Pakistan has declared Ahmadi Muslims to be non-Muslims) or

  • ethnic groups who are deemed less “pure” than the majority.

Perhaps, this is why tolerance for other religions or other ethnic groups never took root  in Pak-i-Stan and perhaps, that is why terrorism
has been able to breed so easily there.

The first breakup of the Pakistani state took place in 1971 when Bangladesh, called East Pakistan back then, declared its independence after a long period of “political and linguistic discrimination as well as economic neglect” (per Wikipedia) by West Pakistan.

Today, Pakistan consists of four distinct ethnic groups. However, the Army and the country’s administrative establishment is dominated by the Panjabi Muslim community. None of the other three ethnic groups are happy or content with this domination.



(Grey-Panjabi; Yellow-Sindhi; Pink-Baluchi; Green-Pashtun)


The structure of today’s Pakistan is derived from British designs. Britain seized the Baluch-i-Stan province from Iran to position the British Empire at the entrance of the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, from which all oil exports of the Middle East flow. The Baluchis are now waging a struggle for autonomy or self-rule against the dominant Panjabi Muslim community.

The Pashtuns residing in Pakistan (green area in the above map) are the same ethnic group as the Pashtuns of Afghanistan. This province was a natural part of Afghanistan until the British annexed it in 1893. Pakistan inherited this province from the British. Neither Afghanistan nor the Pashtuns living in this green area accept Pakistani hegemony over their land. This is why the Pashtuns call this province as “Pashtun-i-Stan”, or the land of the Pashtuns.


  • In this context, it is easy to see how the Taleban, a Pashtun dominated movement, could migrate south after the liberation of North Afghanistan and find a home in Pashtun-i-Stan to find a home to rest, recuperate and build back its strength. It is also easy to see how this rejuvenated Taleban can slip in to Afghanistan to attack the American forces in Afghanistan.


  • At the same time, the Pashtuns are waging a struggle against the dominant Pakistani Panjabi Muslim community for autonomy, self-rule and eventual nationhood.
With these simultaneous conflicts, it has become hard to distinguish friends from enemies and allies from adversaries. It is this complicated dynamic that faces the American forces as they seek to stabilize Afghanistan.


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