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Death of a dream

Updated 24 Aug, 2017 01:12pm
A man hoists the Pakistani flag | AFP
A man hoists the Pakistani flag | AFP

The fortieth anniversary of independence this month should have been an occasion for undiluted joy, since four decades is considered a long enough period for the flowering of a free people's genius ... there will certainly be something to be thankful for: thanks to the ordinary people's faith in themselves and their labour in homes, factories and fields, we are still counted among the independent states of the world.

A few inspiring images may also flit across the mind's eye on this occasion — the lowering of the Union Jack on August 14, 1947, the demonstrations for the freedom of the Maghreb or against the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez, the frail figure of Miss Fatima Jinnah resisting a powerful field marshal's attempts to bury democracy, dumb villagers dethroning the waderas in 1970, Faiz singing the Palestinians' battle song in Beirut, or Professor Abdus Salam receiving the Nobel prize.

But what is more likely is that one will find the mind overwhelmed by today's sorrows. As one tries to wonder what we have made of freedom, the images that refuse to move away may be of a woman being whipped, a charred body being carried away from Bohri Bazar, or a policeman taking aim at innocent children.

Forty years ago we had created a state of our own so that we could erase the colonial legacy, build a society on the ideals of peace and justice, and provide the people opportunities to use their talent and move from success to success in statecraft, economic management, scientific research and cultural creativity. Looking back one is stunned to note that not only has this dream not been realised, it has lost its spell.

It seems Pakistan's history was seriously affected by the series of reversals it suffered at the time of its birth and soon afterwards.

The first of these calamities was the destruction of the Pakistan scheme by the partition plan. The 'truncated and moth-eaten Pakistan' that the Quaid-e-Azam was forced by circumstances to accept was not exactly what we had asked for.

The Pakistan scheme had not only promised self-rule for the Muslims in areas where they were in a majority but also all the democratic freedom to non-Muslims in these areas and to Muslims in areas where non-Muslims were in a majority. Anything less could not have been described as the only workable solution of the subcontinent's constitutional and communal problems.

This design was wrecked by the division of Bengal, Punjab and Assam. Had the provinces not been divided, the partition carnage might not have taken place, the Kashmir issue might not have arisen, the two states might not have taken to the path of mutually ruinous confrontation from the outset, and both would have been under compulsion to curb the monsters of religious bigotry and communal intolerance.

The men in power had no idea what they were doing when they passed the Objectives Resolution.

The cost of Pakistan was particularly heavy. The partition of the provinces and the consequent transfer of population upset not only the demographic map but also the social fabric. The fall in the minority's size, instead of suppressing communal antagonism only aggravated it.

On the one hand the theocratic lobby saw an opportunity to subvert the ideal of a democratic national state of Muslims and replace it with a conservative religious model and, on the other hand, a strong propertied class rose to fill the vacuum caused by the exodus of non-Muslims.

However, even in the shape in which it appeared on the world map, Pakistan was more fortunate in many respects than most other countries that have acceded to independence during this century. It did not have working state machinery but it did have a sizable infrastructure. Its assets included a hard-working peasantry, a strong community of artisans and metal-workers, a sizable force of white-collar professionals, a highly developed irrigation network, a respectable judicial system, and an electorate that was not entirely unfamiliar with the use of the ballot. The basic requisites of a dynamic and democratic polity were there.

Then befell the second calamity — the rejection of the Quaid-e-Azam's ideals by his successors. He was the only leader in Pakistan who understood the grave implications of the partition plan. By trying to confine transfer of population to the divided provinces he made a brave effort to preserve the multi-religious character of the country.

More importantly, he realised that the strategies of the pre­-independence Muslim League could not be pursued in Pakistan. Accordingly, he took the first opportunity (August 11, 1947) to replace religion with state citizenship as the basis of Pakistani nationhood.

He even wanted the ruling party – the Pakistan Muslim League – to be thrown open to non-Muslims, thus indicating his preference for secular, democratic polity. Within six months of his death the country’s rulers sought safety not in the democratic support of the people but as custodians of an ideology invented by elements that had spent years in denouncing the Pakistan demand, by word and by deed.

A boy in a refugee camp in Delhi during the Partition in 1947 | Margaret Bourke-White, Life Magazine
A boy in a refugee camp in Delhi during the Partition in 1947 | Margaret Bourke-White, Life Magazine

The men in power had no idea what they were doing when they passed the Objectives Resolution. Men like Mian Mumtaz Daultana say there was never any idea about making Pakistan into a workshop for theocratic experiments and the resolution was adopted as a harmless concession to the clergy. But while it is true that creation of a theocracy was not intended, the rulers needed a prop to resile from their commitment to democracy.

The ruling elite – people who owed their political status to the creation of Pakistan and their economic rise to evacuee property – visualised only one role for the state: to perpetuate themselves in authority. They were helped in their designs by a historical handicap of the people: the non-existence of an organised social force without which democracy cannot take root.

Repudiation of the democratic principle meant suppression of the regional entities and the two parts of the country started pulling apart. The situation was complicated by Indo-Pakistan tensions which pushed defense to the top of the priority list and gave the rulers an excuse to exact more sacrifices from the people, on the one hand, and deviate further from democratic methods, on the other.

By 1954 the country had been pushed into the quagmire of intrigue and political corruption. Leadership had passed into the hands of bureaucrats without any political base among the people, the ideal of an independent foreign policy had been bartered away for foreign armaments, the provinces had been turned into satrapies of the centre's hatchet men, economic planning had been made subservient to the interests of small­ time merchants, security laws had been revived, the labour movement had been taken over, and politics had been vulgarised into palace coups.

Hopes of recovery were rekindled when the 1954 election in East Bengal produced a democratic change in that province. But the promise was wiped out by an undemocratic centre guided solely by lust for power and the advice of aid-givers. East Bengal governments were made and unmade in rapid succession and lack of stability there was finally used by Ayub Khan to bring in military rule. A decade of "stability" under Ayub tore the two wings of the country apart and Yahya Khan only presided over the final act of Pakistan's dismemberment, defeat and eternal shame.

A fresh start to build Pakistan into a democratically governed nation was made in 1971. In a way we were back in 1947. The dangers of the B.D. system and highly centralised presidential rule had been recognised, the popular choice of a representative parliamentary form of government had been found irresistible even by the leader called upon to pick up the debris of the shattered state, the provinces had regained their political identities and even the right to autonomy, the theocrats had been rejected and the goal of a welfare state committed to the interest of the downtrodden had been sanctified by the ballot.

In sum, we have cultivated friends far away from us, who cannot help us in times of peril, and have made powerful enemies at our doorstep, who can cause us irreparable harm.

Again the historic opportunity was missed. We saw the unbelievable spectacle of a political government relying less on party organisation than on a bureaucracy inherited from the old order, provincial rights conceded with one hand and promptly suppressed with the other, and all this while it was known that those ousted from power in 1971 had only made a tactical retreat.

When, a few years later, the crunch came, the political regime sought a reprieve not with the help of supporters and beneficiaries of democracy but through compromise with those very forces that were undermining it. The decks were thus cleared for the third martial law, the use of terror to induce servility rechristened as sanity. By the time this martial law ended the country had been pushed to the precipice.

The difficulties we have created for ourselves as a result of our failure to evolve democratic polity are legion. Where do we stand after 40 years of independence?

True, the quality of life in Pakistan, the principal measure to determine the achievements of self-governance, is higher than it was in 1947, but does our record compare favourably with the progress made over a corresponding period by other nations?

Even the primary goal of guaranteeing adequate provision of basic necessities to the entire population has not been realised. For instance, while the availability of food and nutrition is estimated at 2,348 calories per head per day, 35 to 40 percent of the population is unable to secure the minimum necessary intake of 2,250 calories per capita per day.

Likewise, the availability of cloth may be considered adequate but over 40 percent of the population is forced to purchase less new clothing annually than a decade earlier. As regards shelter, the official estimate of the shortage of houses in the country at three million units is widely regarded as much too conservative but even this figure indicates that 18 to 20 million people (up to one-fifth of the total) are without proper shelter. According to official estimates, about 25 percent of the urban population is residing in 'katchi abadis' where no civic amenities are available.

Thanks to changes in the definition of literacy, we are able to claim a 100 percent increase in the literacy percentage over the 1947 figure, but the failure in the field of education can be gauged from the fact that less than 50 percent of children of school going age are enrolled at primary schools. Even after juggling with figures the administration can claim one doctor for every 2,100 of the population and one dentist for 63,587 persons. Sixty­ six percent of the entire population (72 percent of the population in the rural areas) is living without potable water facilities.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addresses personnel of the Pakistan army | White Star
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addresses personnel of the Pakistan army | White Star

These statistics do not reveal the poverty of the state, they only reveal failure in management of resources and lack of interest in evolving a fair distribution of wealth. But most people will be worried less about their present deprivations than about their future, made uncertain by a number of factors.

The chief cause of anxiety is the serious erosion of the bonds of national unity. Forty years ago we were talking of our being a single Pakistani nation first and of nationalities afterwards. Today the order has been reversed because the mutual understanding that inspired the freedom struggle has disappeared.

There is no consensus on the fundamental law of the state, the constitution of 1973 has been shorn of some of its essential features and those who call for its revival consider this necessary only for holding elections. The state has become an uneasy and forced alliance of at least four political entities, each suspicious of others and all of them pulling in different directions.

No less dangerous than these inter-regional divisions are the inter-­regional splits. The rise of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, whatever the causes and whatever the nature of mohajir grievances, has created a dangerous ethnic divide in Sindh. A similar ethnic split has taken place in Balochistan. Hundreds of lives have been lost in ethnic conflicts over the past few years.

Besides, religion, which was once considered the sole unifying force, has been turned into a divisive element. The attempt to push the country towards a theocratic model has resulted in a geometric increase in sectarianism.

The law against the Ahmadis has earned the state strictures from International Human Rights Bodies. The Shias have been agitating for the right to be governed by Fiqh Jafaria. Shia-Sunni riots have become, in the last few years, more frequent and bloodier than ever before. The majority sect continues to demand that its fiqh alone can be the supreme law in the land, but even this sect is divided and factions are not ashamed of demanding conformity through the use of violence. The assault on Lahore's Badshahi Mosque a few years ago was a complete dramatic adaptation of the Iqbalian finding “Deen-i-Mullah fi Sabeel-Allah fasad.”

The facility granted to the religious lobby to interfere in matters of state has emboldened them to raise armed militias and gain political advantages by force. They have also been encouraged to deny women's right to equality with men – a principle never disputed in 1947 – and to propose legislation that will completely destroy the principles of the legislature's authority as the supreme law-making body and the judiciary’s independence.

Yet, the prophets of doom – those who argue that Pakistan cannot survive – have a surprise in store for them.

The use of violence for supposedly holy causes and the state's reliance on force as the sole sanction for demanding people's allegiance has brutalised the entire society. There is violence between citizen and citizen. Thanks to a controversial external policy, the country has become a sprawling smugglers' market, glutted with guns and narcotics. The cities are living under the terror of arms and heroin mafias.

If the social fabric has been torn, the state could not have been doing well either. The economy is in a shambles. A stage has been reached where Pakistan’s revenues are almost completely consumed by non­productive activities and very little is left to meet the demands of development and public welfare. Loans are needed to pay outstanding loans, even to meet the cost of administering the country. The aid-givers are threatening to cut the umbilical cord at the slightest sign of deviation from the path of servility.

Forty years ago we greeted the world under the Quaid-e-Azam's motto "friendship with all and malice towards none." Now we have found nations for whom nothing but malice is displayed, with our neighbours along the northwestern borders we are in open conflict, and tension persists along the southern borders. Our eastern and western neighbours are friends but do not trust us. In sum, we have cultivated friends far away from us, who cannot help us in times of peril, and have made powerful enemies at our doorstep, who can cause us irreparable harm.

After 40 years of independence we find ourselves an atomised society, writhing under a precarious and dangerously extended superstructure, riven by political disagreements and sectarian discord, in the centre of geopolitical storms we cannot weather, and above all, devoid of the will to live. Can anyone be blamed for raising the question: "Can Pakistan survive?"

A young boy in Islamabad in 2012 protests against an anti-Islam film and the publication of blasphemous caricatures | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
A young boy in Islamabad in 2012 protests against an anti-Islam film and the publication of blasphemous caricatures | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The entire citizenry considers the future too bleak to be contemplated at any length. A battlefront mood seems to have come over it. Everybody wants to make a packet for himself in the shortest possible time because, it is feared, tomorrow may not be another day. Hope for survival has become a scarce commodity. The belief that survival depends on democracy, and democracy the vested interest will not permit, deepens the crippling feeling of despair, day by day, hour by hour.

Yet, the prophets of doom – those who argue that Pakistan cannot survive – have a surprise in store for them. They ignore the factors that will ensure Pakistan’s integrity though they may not promise an immediate end to the current drift. The different regions of the country make a natural geographical whole with common physical resources and interdependent economies. The people belonging to different nationalities have much in common with one another and the ideal of forging a composite nation has not been given up by any one of them.

At the same time, the forces that help component units of states anywhere to break away are not in sight. Even those who think of turning Karachi into another Singapore may have begun to realise that international capital does not have the resources to gratify their wishes. Above all, the state structure, despite its appearance of strength and all its bluster, is much too weak to with stand concerted public pressure.

But the real danger that Pakistan faces today is not of disintegration but of continuation of the status quo, which will condemn the people to a long period of insecurity, further deterioration of institutions of civilised governance, and greater misery for the have-nots — a life of aliens in their homeland.

The scenario can be changed if the ordinary people are allowed to have their say. They can make mistakes but they also have the ability to correct them. Given an opportunity to elect their trusted representatives for offices in government as well as in party hierarchies, they will find solutions to all the problems that today appear intractable. And the possibility that they may do it without a formal invitation from anyone is the best guarantee for a better future — a thread of hope by no means slender.

This was originally published in Herald's August 1987 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.