To Be Or Not To Be: How Pakistan At 75 Proves Both Supporters And Opponents Right

To Be Or Not To Be: How Pakistan At 75 Proves Both Supporters And Opponents Right
One cannot help but begin with the question asked by the Bard as his melancholy protagonist, Hamlet, contemplated death and suicide. That question has dominated the national debate in Pakistan for the last three quarters of century. Ever since it gained independence, the country has stumbled from one grave crisis to another and has mostly been at some or other perilous juncture, with the question of its survival arising very frequently.

During the first decade of independence, the world fretted about the country's ability to survive. Within the first quarter century, the world was proved right as the majority province seceded due to perceived oppression by the minority. Now, the same question is haunting the rump again. Tellingly, Bangladesh, the erstwhile breakaway province, has faced setbacks of its own as a country, yet it has never faced existential issues that have dogged its former western half that is today Pakistan.

Two decades of direct military rule and three decades of military-propped semi-democratic rule has eroded faith in this country's ability to govern itself. Political affairs have been dealt with by the Establishment in typically Machiavellian style. The party on their right side at one time has found itself on their wrong side later. All leading parties of today, i.e. PML-N, PTI, PPP and JUI-F have alternately been in favour and disfavour. The political process has not been allowed to mature and play out to its logical end. Real issues take a backseat, as closed-door intrigues rather than the ‘will of the people’ dominates the political mechanism. The Establishment is quick to intervene in political battles that should be settled in the ballot or in the streets. Their intervention freezes the issues temporarily but they bounce back latter with greater ferocity.

Perhaps the military bureaucracy ought to closely read the lessons of the US Civil War. When Abraham Lincoln took office and the southern states declared secession, neither the Union nor the Confederate forces took power to quell the swelling armed struggle. If civil war was to be the solution to the political problems related to slavery, the Americans didn’t shy away. Four years and a million lives latter, the US emerged stronger with its freedoms intact, and on track to becoming a superpower. If bloodletting is the ‘cure,’ then nothing else would work.

Even countries with corrupt politicians can survive and prosper, as is the case of Italy, provided the task of tackling financial irregularities is left to the courts – even if they are compromised. A political party can raise the issue of corruption in public sphere and let the electorate decide its relevance, but for the Establishment to take advantage of the public sentiments to settle political scores has never proved productive.

Over and over again, military intervention has proved lethal for the stability of the nation. The country has now reached a stage where the judiciary is divided against itself, parliament has become dysfunctional, government is non-effective and civil bureaucracy is crippled. Local and lower elective bodies are non-existent. This cannot instill confidence in the health of any nation. Even now, when Pakistan is on the brink, no lessons seem to have been learnt. The same old stale and failed formulae of sowing political discord between political parties, creating divisions within these parties and buying the loyalties of their elected parliamentarians are being employed. This betrays a lack of wisdom.

Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Our nation is guilty of this insanity on national issues. Our political leaders and Establishment need to buy a good book of simple quotations, read a bit of medieval history and look up their old locked up files. They would come to the rational conclusion that political process must run their course unimpeded. Zia’s hypocritical Islamic zeal, Musharraf’s enlightened modernisation and this newfound ‘neutrality’ is similar to the famous Emperor’s wonderful clothes – they were simply not there!

The judiciary, too, has disappointed the nation by some of their decisions, which they themselves would like to be buried and forgotten. While it is accepted that judges, being humans, would adhere to a certain set of social values, alignment with political parties, succumbing to pressure and yielding to greed destroys the social fabric of the entire nation. As Hazrat Ali (RA) said, “A nation can survive without faith but not without justice.” This is a clear pronouncement about our future.

No one should be surprised by our current national difficulties. In his interview to Shorish Kashmiri for the magazine Chattan (Rock) in April 1946, Abul-Kalam Azad foresaw the issues that the yet-to-be-established Pakistan would face. He said that the new state would be confronted with military dictatorship, heavy foreign debt, internal unrest and exploitation by the nouveau riche. He also hinted at Bengalis breaking away. Similarly, Dewan Ismail Beg (paternal uncle of brothers Agha Shahi and Hilali) – who put Mysore (now Karnataka) on the path to education and technology and Bangalore of beautification in 1920-30s – also didn't have trust in Pakistan. The Quaid tried but failed to lure him to his side. We have proved our worst detractors right and, what is worse, failed to learn any lessons. Personal vanities have been taking precedence over national interests.

Let us be mindful of the paradox of our existence. Those who sincerely opposed the creation of Pakistan had genuine reasons to do so. As the political economy of the country disintegrates, they have been proved correct. On the other hand, those who strived to obtain a Partition of India had valid concerns for the welfare of Muslims in a united India. They, too, have been proved right as the rise of Hindutva philosophy in India shows.

It was for the people of Pakistan to take care of this piece of land and its systems in their own self-interest. It is the middle and lower classes who bear the full brunt of state failure.
By some estimates, anywhere from 0.3 to 0.5 million trained manpower migrates every year for greener pastures. Now, even our leaders in politics, bureaucracy, economy and industry have chosen safe haven abroad

We also need to learn that our leaders are human beings with human weaknesses and strengths. Objective analysis of an era and actions by the then leaders are legitimate fields of study. In Pakistan, people treat political leaders either as unmitigated devils if they oppose them, or as ordained angles if they support them. There is no middle ground. We forget that the Language Riots in East Pakistan and Babbra massacre in NWFP (today KP) occurred within the first year of our independence, when the Quaid was the Governor General. The Americans can find faults in Washington and Jefferson, the British with Churchill, the Germans with Adenauer and the French with de Gaulle, but criticism of the Quaid’s political wisdom becomes a cardinal sin – an attitude towards the past which is closer to that of dictatorial states. In fact, in Pakistan, even lesser leaders like current heads of political parties are faultless to their followers and completely tarnished by their detractors. We are extremists in our attitudes and no wonder we live through religious and political extremism.

We don't acknowledge our real national heroes if they don’t conform to our religious, political or social views. Dr. Abdus Salaam and Malala Yousafzai are universally acclaimed but pervasively castigated in their own lands. Even our Saint Edhi found detractors in the clergy. Our treatment of Saghir Saddiqui, Manto, Jalib, Daman, Faiz, Faraz, Qasmi and many more intellectuals has been shabby and uncivilised. We don’t even acknowledge our past to know who we are. Islamic identity overrides the more natural ethnic character. We are not as proud of our land as we are of Arabia, Persia or Central Asia. We prefer Arab culture and social customs to our own and mistakenly call it Islamic culture. We don’t realise that most of the Arab nations do not subscribe to a Saudi-style model. Even Saudis themselves are moving away from a medieval-leaning culture to a more inclusive one. We are confused about our national identity and there is no social movement in the society to reverse this trend.

One of the primordial sins of Pakistan is the failure to set its national priorities. Our efforts should have been directed at achieving pluralistic goals for personal liberty, educational enhancement, economic development, population control, social cohesion, rule of law, etc. Instead, the founding fathers embarked upon passing a myopic Objectives Resolution. This document was aimed at the impossible task of appeasing the religious class, besides playing with the sentiments of people. Instead, the leadership should have concentrated on solving multilayered problems facing the people at that critical time.

Then in later times came the Hudood Ordinance, Blasphemy laws, Qisas and Diyat laws and many more of such pearls of wisdom. The nation has never been clear about what constitutes its self-interest and has been meandering since then in the quagmire of ignorance, deprivation, sectarianism and intolerance. Supreme state institutions should not have encouraged religious bigotry.

One sure sign of our failure is that our young, bright, educated men and women are expressing their confidence in the country with their feet: they are leaving. The best engineering, medical, business and technical products of our educational and technical institutions don’t want to live and work here. They wait for the first opportunity to leave for Western or Middle-Eastern countries. By some estimates, anywhere from 0.3 to 0.5 million trained manpower migrates every year for greener pastures. Now, even our leaders in politics, bureaucracy, economy and industry have chosen safe haven abroad and shifted their families and assets as an insurance against the expected deterioration of national cohesion. That portends a poor future for national industrial and economic development.

The statistics tell a sad story. Of the millions of computers, laptops and cellphones sold here, the country produces none, except assembling a few. Of the thousands of vehicles and millions of two- and three-wheelers, none is wholly produced here. Of millions of units of machines, monitoring equipment and test-kits used in our hospitals and clinics, none is produced here. Millions of dollars of software and satellite products are purchased from abroad. All sorts of industrial machinery, except some low-tech products, are imported. That is a dismal state of affairs. A non-technical nation of 220 million shall remain poor, ignorant and backward. Without innovation and technology, its agriculture, too, cannot progress. Our nation will remain dependent on imports for even basic food items.

With such a large import bill and very little exports, the country is unlikely to get out of an international debt trap. The gap between exports and imports is likely to continue to grow, increasing our dependence on foreign loans, applying pressure on the exchange rate, retarding infrastructure upgrade and slowing down human development.

To be sure, the nation has shown great talent. Its sportsmen have excelled, women have displayed great abilities, defense production has won laurels, social mobility is possible, students have done well at the international level and industrial production of certain goods has been impressive. However, these achievements are few and the result of individual efforts. The socio-political environment in the country is not conducive for high achieving citizens to realise their true potential.

Does our nation have a future? In his 2011 long paper titled “The Future of Pakistan,” Stephen P. Cohen lists several possibilities for the future of Pakistan; none of them cheerful. He thinks that Pakistan can slide towards a breakup, military dictatorship, Islamic militant takeover, Lebanon-isation or just muddle through. This is a realistic but alarming analysis. Certainly, the statistics support these scary scenarios.

Pakistan ranks 154th in HDI. In the Human Capital Report, it ranks 125th – below Chad, Swaziland and Lesotho. 30% of people live below the poverty line. Our population growth rate of 1.91% is more than double that of the world average of 0.83%. Per capita GDP, according to the World Bank, is 12% of the world average. These are abysmal figures and do not portend well for a secure future.

Pakistan’s ‘State of the Union’ is not satisfactory. As Shakespeare said, “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.” The nation is confronted with political, economic and social uncertainties and there is no solution on the horizon to the various maladies.

There is, alas, no light at the end of this long dark tunnel.

This is not the fear of a pessimist but the opinion of a realist.

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: