Rethinking Pakistaniat​

I have often been asked about when Pakistan would begin on a correction course – a path that all will tread together to construct a future together. My answer always is that I can’t say when but I know what will be the indicator of when change will happen: it is the day when you won’t see people throwing garbage out of their windows. It is really not about people’s sense of cleanliness, or the lack of it, but a sense of ownership that seems to be at the heart of why Pakistan continues to look so imperfect. And it is not as if the general public is not concerned about the state. Given the internal tension and conflict you will also find people inquiring often if the country will survive and then watch the sigh of relief when you tell them that territories don’t grow feet and walk away. However, it is the part related with the question of how do you make the place more liveable that people get stuck. Strangely enough, people with remarkable individual brilliance fail in composing and being part of a combined vision which makes something highly uncomfortable in Pakistan’s existing state of being.

I dig into my memory to present a comparison of how we would want to be and what we actually end up feeling. Decades ago, I had accompanied my mother to obtain old GCSC question papers from the University of London examination centre in the UK. Right in front of us was another young girl my age with her mother on a similar errand. I still remember the ring of pride in their voices as they responded to the question about destination of the examination centre: “the exam is to be taken in Israel.” When it was our turn, we responded a bit timidly to the same question. This was despite that I had also grown up on the text of my country being a promised land – imagined not in the 1930s but in 712AD. But I was different from the Israeli girl. It was the summer of 1979 before Pakistan found its temporary status of a frontline state and was inflicted with the third martial law of General Ziaul Haq. The Israeli girl’s country was far more stable to have given her the confidence which I did not enjoy.

There is a need to admit that the uninterrupted holding of a third election does not naturally mean strengthening of democracy, but the emergence of a hybrid-democracy in which extra-parliamentary forces have acquired a bigger role through multiple means, including silencing of voices

Over years, the discomfort did not go away. I could not be convinced by the argument made by historian Ayesha Jalal or fiction writer Mohsin Hamid that Pakistan needs to be seen as a glass half full, where despite troubling things, interesting events also happen – such as literature festivals and Coke Studio – where honour killings and radicalism are not the only reality but men also dare to do television shows dressed as transvestites. Something tells me that the glass could be filled up through the rigorous and emotionally gruelling process of re-imagination, which in turn, cannot start unless we confess to the mistakes we have made.

Am I suggesting what the former Prime Minister Shahid Khakan Abbasi said about forming a truth commission? Perhaps!

Historically, the most recent idea of a truth commission comes from South Africa, where a new ruling elite that took over after end of apartheid decided to re-negotiate the social contract at multiple levels through including voice of the public. Not only there were truth commissions to deal with social and political grievances but also commissions meant to assess people’s perception and need for security that later went into formulation of force goals, force size, military’s strategic vision, etc. From a narrow realist framework fashionable in the Subcontinent such truth commissions are not likely because what happened in South Africa was unusual: there was collapse of a social, political and power structure after which all stakeholders decided to give space to each other to speak and reformulate the formula for state-society relations.

Unfortunately, in 70 years we were unable to initiate a meaningful civil-military dialogue to resolve a problematic relationship that makes the state moth-eaten. The establishment continues to believe that any criticism is aided from outside by enemies of the state. What is worse is that in so many decades after Independence, the armed forces as an institution have become so big in terms of its institutional ego that it does not understand that any critical evaluation is not out of hatred or jealousy, as was suggested by Pervez Musharraf, but need for ownership. After all, isn’t defence a public good and thus, a service provided with my funds for my security? Moreover, states that remain static in terms of their strategic goals become burdensome on themselves, let alone the rest of the world.

There is a need to admit that the uninterrupted holding of a third election does not naturally mean strengthening of democracy, but the emergence of a hybrid-democracy in which extra-parliamentary forces have acquired a bigger role through multiple means, including silencing of voices.

The issue with focusing on re-imaging Pakistan as was suggested years ago by ambassador Maliha Lodhi is that the state would naturally have to turn authoritarian that aims primarily at killing the alternative. It is our state policies that have ingrained political, cultural and ideological radicalism in our veins. What to speak of radical writings? Even our mainstream literature nourishes a conservatism that makes us out of place in this world. The right-wing radicalism, in fact, is endogenous and now part of the soil. Therefore, violent extremists will remain the present and future, not the past.

Our institutions, be it the civil and military bureaucracy, Parliament or the judiciary, have weakened if not totally collapsed under the burden of a discourse of power politics and force. We are a bureaucratic polity that has consistently failed to respond to people for which the blame goes as much to the political class as the military. Compromising on principles, getting sold to the highest bidder in search for power, and an absolute lack of democratic norms in our institutions has created divisions at multiple levels. In the last 70 years, we have squarely invested in patronage system of politics rather than democracy that has only deepened the ethnic divide and other cleavages. The creation of Pakistaniat cannot be achieved through a bland 50 points formula suggested by Javed Jabbar but allowing people a social contract in which they feel a sense of ownership of the state.

One of the consequences of a bureaucratic polity is failure of politics in which parties and movements emerge from an organic process. Notwithstanding the fact that even Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had support of parts of the military establishment, his slogan and ability to create a wider socioeconomic and political agenda resulted in formulation of a popular political party that people still remember. The PPP vote bank, which is now almost dead, especially in the largest province of the Punjab, is actually about memory of ordinary folk of a party that gave them a sense of ownership. Since then, we have had parties that were created through manipulation, pure power politics and patronage. Is it not tragic that Seraiki speakers in the Punjab want a province to be carved out through manipulation rather than their own efforts or a popular movement? Shouldn’t we wonder why movements disappeared from the country to an extent that we even have to call the lawyer’s uprising as a movement? Thus, the pressures on parties like the PML-N multiply because despite its popularity, it couldn’t expand its base to include the general public. Not to mention, the inability of the political class to find means to negotiate amongst themselves. The Charter of Democracy was a starting point that was eventually unable to anchor in the system due to power manipulation.

The buck, however, doesn’t stop with the generals or the politicians. There is also absence of a solid intellectual input to nourish a longing for democratic norms and equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. Let’s face it that institutional collapse is written all over our social frame. Even human rights organisations have turned elitist, dynastic and mafia-like. Our narration of history and politics is not only stale but unforgiving as far as our state of affairs are concerned.

I remember being asked once by a friend why Pakistan mattered to me despite its multiple problems. My answer was because it is home. It matters because it is my primary identity like that of millions of people living in this land. We need to reimagine it which is qualitatively different from breaking it into pieces. Let’s be South Africans for a bit and speak our minds so that the state and its governance gets naturally shaped for everyone’s convenience.

Note: This article originally published here.