Cogito Ergo Sum: Asking Questions Is Painful In Today's Pakistan

Cogito Ergo Sum: Asking Questions Is Painful In Today's Pakistan
We had a dream. When my widowed grandmother left Amritsar in early August 1947 with her young son, she had a dream. When my father left Amritsar on 14 August 1947, riding on top of a railway carriage, he had a dream. When he was confined to the sprawling and crowded Manser Camp on the left bank of the Indus near the old bridge, he had a dream. When my maternal grandfather, with a polio induced limp in his left leg, walked into the Jallianwala Baghdad on 19 April 1919, he had a dream, and when he, evading the bullets and the swords, scampered over its wall, he still had a dream. When he, an Ahrar follower, had to dispatch his family from Amritsar in a train, and himself walked or hitch-hiked the bloody trail to Lahore, a city he had not been to in his life, he still had a dream.

When I, a first-generation offspring of two refugee families, struggled my way into the very competitive PAF Public School, and met Bengalis for the first time in my life, I was confounded and distressed to find that our brothers from the east, otherwise very friendly on personal level – a friendship that continues nearly six decades later – had lost their dream and were desirous of breaking the union that they had initiated and worked for right through the bloodshed of Calcutta, Noakhali and countless other places. Lest we forget – because in our Land of the Pure, unbiased history is neither taught, nor written, nor read – it was the Bengalis who turned Muslim Education Conference into All India Muslim League in December 1906. It was the bloodshed perpetrated by the Muslim League government of Bengal on 16 August 1946, the Direct Action Day, in Calcutta that permanently accentuated the religious divide in India and led to the political division of India. It was Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a Bengali, who gave up chief ministership of Bengal, a province larger than the combined East and West Pakistan, to accept a minor role in the new nation that he and his colleagues, Mujibur Rehman included, helped create through blood and tears. But how did the nation repay these sacrifices and toils? The nation responded by exiling this true revolutionary, and, strangely, promoting Iskander Mirza, a scion of the house of Mir Jaffer and a government functionary of the British occupiers, to the position of head of State.

While we, the West Pakistani 13-year old colleagues, didn't know or comprehend the tyranny and injustice meted out to the suffering masses, the politically conscious Bengalis already knew that their dream of independence had been stolen by the power-hungry clique of the then establishment. Just as my generation is now fully cognizant that our dream of a dignified life and of a free nation has been taken away by successive versions of the establishment.

When the Bengalis complained of rape and rapine, my generation took it as propaganda and believed the official version. Now, we understand what our erstwhile eastern brothers were telling us. Recently, one of those Bengali school friends reminded me that true patriots of Pakistan had always been branded as traitors and a false narrative was spread regarding patriotism. Pakistan has lived through many dark eras; dissolution of Assemblies, doctrines of necessity, civil disturbances, the events of 1971, the infamy of 16 December 1971, the pain of 16 December 2014, martial laws, terrorism in urban neighbourhoods and much more. However, through all these calamities, our loyalties to state and institutions never wavered and remained intact. This current round of instability, however, has shaken the foundations of belief. What is loyalty, and loyalty to whom? What is a nation, and a nation for what? What is a belief, and belief in what? What is freedom, and freedom from what; freedom of what? What all is sacrosanct, and to what degree? Should there be blasphemy in political and social ideology? These questions cut at the heart of our being. Cogito, ergo sum (I think; therefore, I am), declared Rene Descartes in 1637. Suddenly in my generation's old age, we now question our existence.

One is reminded of life under Fahrenheit 451 society, or in Animal Farm. Sometimes, the mind pleads not to think. Thinking should not be a trait in slave societies because thinking leads to questions. Questions demand answers; questions are accountability; questions demand raisons d'etre for actions, authority and positions. Questions, therefore, are dangerous, but questions rise out of thinking. Thinking must then be curtailed except when for the mundane thoughts of daily grind of life. And so it was that Imam Ghazali very rightly forbade questions beyond a limit.

"Society can survive without religion but not without justice," was the conclusion of a wise, tragic man. Justice is not only in the courts. It is everywhere. It is in the intra-family relations, in commerce, in driving on the road, in using extra tissue papers, in consumption, in praise, in hate; in every aspect of life. It is in dragging women on the roads, raiding houses in the middle of night, abducting people, placing old dignified women in dungeons, threatening men with abducting their wives and children, murdering journalists, humiliating war heroes, and the list goes on. Our nation has lost its sense of justice. It thrives on the principle of ‘Might is Right’, 'Money can buy Justice' and 'The Powerful are Above the Law.'
Through all these calamities, our loyalties to state and institutions never wavered and remained intact. This current round of instability, however, has shaken the foundations of belief. What is loyalty, and loyalty to whom?

These distortions in the justice system are now widely accepted by the less fortunate sections of society as the norm, and by the privileged as their right. The dream of creating a just, equitable nation is lost. As its future becomes increasingly bleak, Pakistan's friends and foes alike have been worried about its future and about the kind of nation it is becoming. Its economic indicators are the worst in the region. Pakistan’s per capita income is less than $1,500, which is the lowest in the region and only 12% of world average. Inflation runs at 30-50 percent on a yearly basis. The nation is hovering on the verge of sovereign default. There are about 20 million children out of school, an equal number in religious madrasahs and many more in substandard educational institutions. Vocational and technical training institutions are very few; rendering our manpower unskilled. With a population projected to be 450 million by 2050, it is difficult to imagine a decent future for the country. These are worrying statistics.

In 1971, when we read the impartial analysts writing about implosion of Pakistan, most of the nation preferred living in denial. The Powers That Be told us that everything would be normal. After the military operation commenced in late March 1971, the nation heard that Pakistan had been saved. However, misconceived steps taken to address the political situation only hastened the demise of the country. The western part continued to be called Pakistan, but it is really a rump.

The future of Pakistan is bleak. The word implosion is often associated with the country. Long before the current events, Stephen Cohen discussed the possible breakup of Pakistan in his book The Idea of Pakistan (2004). Even before the tragic events of the previous month (May 2023), numerous local and foreign analysts gave up hope in the nation. Dawn prophesised that the future was neither breakup nor collapse but a violent chaos. Meanwhile discussed that the “implosion of Pakistan is Imminent.” Retired Indian Justice Markanday Katju , wrote on the subject of “Why Pakistan is heading towards implosion.” The Asian Age raised the same question in an article titled “Is Pakistan on the brink of implosion?” The Wilson Centre discussed that “Pakistan is at a dangerous crossroads.”

Such dark pronouncements are not new. Two years ago wrote that “All signs point to the Implosion of Pakistan.” Earlier in February this year, the online paper The Intercept discussed that Pakistan was on the brink due economic crisis. The Guardian discussed in March this year the exodus of youth from Pakistan due to their uncertain future. There are other papers that rate our life expectancy at seven to ten years.

Our friends, our enemies, our own analysts and world scholars are all worried that the nation is heading for certain disaster. The only people not worried are our political leadership and our entrenched establishment who, very strangely, seem oblivious of the iceberg ahead. Their actions to achieve political goals can only hasten the end game. Even the IMF, our economic lifeline at the moment, spoke about the need to find a peaceful way forward in line with constitution and law. It is again a 1971 situation but, as I wrote in my previous article, those who are entrusted with steering us through the turbulent waters have safe parking slots abroad and, therefore, have no interest in anchoring the ship in steady waters.

There are many who continue to believe, with a strong ‘God Willing’ pronouncement, that our nation shall come to no harm. One struggles to find common ground with such optimism but hopes that they are right. However, hope is a prayer and not a strategy. If this nation is surviving on prayers without a strategy, then it doesn’t have much hope left.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: