Happy Independence Day

To prosper and progress a state needs to replace distrust by openness: achieve security by confidence-building and transparency, and develop a common moral consciousness and moderation says Saad Hafiz

As the stage-managed ceremonies marking Pakistan’s 67th Independence Day approach, it may be worth examining the state of the state. This is not to belittle ‘befitting’ national celebrations, which can become important elements of a national identity. Every nation needs symbols, traditions and ‘auspicious’ days to affirm its distinctiveness and pass its traditions to the next generation.

Contrary to other modern states that are based on nation and history, Pakistan was founded on a controversial premise that a nation can be created and sustained on the basis of a religious identity. This segregationist, essentially negative concept, which served as the basis of the Two-Nation theory, continues to haunt Pakistan today. It permeated the body politic, largely dimming the hope of building a pluralistic and inclusive society. The question of identity and the ideological disputation, as inherited from the very start in a newly created state, manifests well the current state of affairs in the Pakistani state and society.

There was also the lack of a well thought out plan of action to consummate Mr Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of a liberal welfare state where all alike could live and contribute as equal citizens. Since its existence, Pakistan has veered between a centralised bureaucratic state and a pre-modern chaotic state providing little security for the populace. Despite recent signs of civilian institutions building and the strengthening of parliamentary democracy, it is a far cry from developing into a pluralistic modern state. Moreover, the country’s 180 million people continue to pay the price of decades of misadventure, misrule and misfortune under both civilian and military leaders.

Historically, the state has employed a sledgehammer approach to national integration. It has pursued policies devoted to creating a unitary entity in which all citizens would have only one cultural and political identity. As political leaders attempted to force one language and culture on the country, and insisted on imposing homogenising nation-state policies, the cause of social peace, inclusionary democracy and individual rights began to be poorly served. It created more than one territorially based, linguistic-cultural cleavage to be activated. There is not much evidence that present-day policymakers have learned a lesson from the past as they continue to mistake uniformity for unity and seek strength in centralization. Little effort is being made to reverse failed nation policies, which have contributed to polarised and warring identities. Moreover, state and society are increasingly comfortable with the application of various forms of social pressure and coercion instead of the skilful and consensual usage of numerous representative practices.

Another factor is that a strong willed ‘religious orthodoxy’ gradually confronted and triumphed over the ‘timid liberalism’ of those acceding to power. This process was helped by the propensity of the liberal/secular minded civil and military elite to press religion into service for political ends when it suited them to do so. Islam has also come to serve as an ideological cover for class-based privilege and exploitation. The upper strata increasingly proclaim their attachment to Islam, to provide an ideological guarantee for their social and material advantages. For the vast majority of the poor, Islam serves as a balm against the harsh realities of grinding poverty and deprivation. It is noteworthy though, that in a country where religion has remained a central factor in politics as well as society, the people have consistently rejected politico-religious parties at the polls.

The transition of Pakistan from a security state to a development state may never materialise. The past anomalies that surfaced in Pakistan’s political and power structure, which were driven by the illogic of territorial distribution, an imbalance of power among the state institutions and society as well as within ethnic groups seem entrenched and irreversible. These structural and systemic inequities have contributed to the rise of sub-nationalism, politicised ethnicity and religious extremism. The potent mix of cultural nationalism and economic disparity coupled with the sheer hubris of the ruling elite continue to foster the conditions for a perfect storm to ensure future internal conflict and potential territorial disintegration.

At every Independence Day, Pakistan is proudly described as a beleaguered but resilient nation, reasonably adept at surviving the confluence of global crises and national pressures. But the post-modern world demands far more than just state survival. To prosper and progress a state needs to replace distrust by openness: achieve security by confidence-building and transparency, and develop a common moral consciousness and moderation that apply to international relations as well as to domestic affairs. The modern state has to accommodate distinct ethnic, religious and cultural groups within a country while maintaining national political coherence. The state must champion the cause of persecuted minorities and firmly take on extremist religious groups. There can be no room for dogmatism and obduracy, pedantry and narrow-mindedness, traits increasingly associated with the Pakistani state and society. Also, simply parroting the unreasonable assumption that Islam is ‘a complete way of life’, which can solve all the problems of humanity forever, will not cut it. Religion can provide ethical and moral guidance but the Pakistani state and society will have to find the solutions itself.

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