An angry mob of Muslim men shout slogans in a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, Pakistan | AFP
An angry mob of Muslim men shout slogans in a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore, Pakistan | AFP

Azadi. There is a ring to the word, a stirring one. It has roused rebels, motivated poets and inspired musicians — to move into action against oppression, to throw away the shackles of convention, to break free of the constricting form and the format. It is making teenagers in Kashmir resist suppression with pebbles; it is turning many a Baloch into angry young men against systemic discrimination; it is moving farmers in Okara into staking a claim to the lands the military says it owns.

Azadi is freedom from disease and want, liberty from subjugation and independence from all forms of exploitation. Or, at least, this is what the dreamers and the idealists among us have always told us.

Azadi means no one is above or below anyone; no one is superior or inferior; no one is purer or more impure than the other. Or at least that is what we understand when we proclaim that we are free — that no one owes anything to us and we owe nothing to anyone; that no one subjugates us and we subjugate no one; that no one exploits or maltreats us and we exploit or maltreat no one.

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If we look around, we are far from being azad — that is, free, as translated in a language we learnt as slaves. When no one owes anything to us, we owe billions of dollars to other states, to international financial institutions, to our own state (in evaded taxes and unpaid utility bills). When no one subjugates us (though it is debatable if no one really subjugates us considering our massive economic and strategic dependence on others), we subjugate many among ourselves: those living in peripheral regions, non-Muslim Pakistanis, women, daily wage workers and the landless peasants in central regions.

Azadi is under fire everywhere. From the vales of Kashmir to the deserts of Balochistan, from the public squares in Turkey to the streets of Bahrain, from Kabul in Afghanistan, Fallujah in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria to Paris in France and Brussels in Belgium. The state’s coercive power and terrorism’s destructive capacity are scaring the hell out of those who want to enjoy a little bit of sunshine, a small patch of moonlight, a whiff of a breeze that can give them warmth, enlightenment and rejuvenation.

Azadi has become a demand rather than a fact. It is the cry of a Hindu after his co-religionist is killed by a mob in Ghotki, Pakistan, at the hands of a Muslim mob enraged over the desecration of the Quran. It is the slogan raised in remonstration by a Dalit after his caste-comrades are stripped naked and beaten up in public in Indian Gujarat. It is the last statement of a dying young girl against her tormentors.

Azadi is August 14th. It is the celebration of independence. It is a patriotic song. It is the colour green.

A tiny group among us would want to claim that the ‘real azadi' is August 11th: the day Jinnah made a great speech, enunciating the features of a purported social contract that the new state would have with its citizens. It is an acknowledgement of our religious diversity. It is a commitment to equality. It is the colour white.

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The middle of this month will mark the start of the 70th year of Pakistan’s existence — as an azad country, many constituent parts of which are not so azad. Consider women. To borrow half a phrase from Karl Marx, they were born free but everywhere they are in chains. Consider Punjabi Christians, who may have changed their religion many times over since their ancestors first thought conversion would rid them of their subhuman status, but have never been counted as free citizens, equal in rights and responsibilities as anyone else in the republic.

Consider the Baloch in Lyari, the Saraiki in Bahawalpur, the Pakhtun in Quetta, the Sindhi in Karachi — they all remain enslaved to racial profiling and ethnic discrimination. Consider a Zikri Baloch in Gwadar, a Seraiki Dalit in Rahimyar Khan, a Hindu Pakhtun in Peshawar, and a Sindhi Sikh in Shikarpur — they all will appear more bound than their Muslim counterparts in the same regions in every social, political and religious respect.

Now consider a Punjabi Christian woman working in Quetta as a midwife, or a Hindu woman from Thar employed as domestic help in Karachi — these demographic features alone are sufficient to suggest that they, perhaps, would be the most unfree Pakistanis one can ever imagine.

Azadi, this August 14th, should be observed with the solemn pledge that it will accrue to all and sundry in equal measure across Pakistan regardless of gender, caste, colour, creed and race. The unfree, the less free and the relatively free must all become free — and equal.

That is when azadi will really dawn.

This was originally published in the Herald's August 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.