By Hassan K. Bajwa
Spend some time watching any news channel or flip through a newspaper anywhere in the world and chances are that you will come across a report of something god-awful happening in Pakistan. These days suicide bombs, sectarian violence, rioting, corruption, economic deprivation, gender discrimination or natural disasters leaving people destitute, are just another report of the daily horrors the average Pakistani has to deal with. The sheer frequency of such happenings is such that it is difficult even for Pakistanis to get their heads around what is going wrong in their country. Pakistani intellectuals, journalists and activists do their best to analyze the current state of affairs and the causative factors that give rise to such conditions, but when one is inundated with awfulness of this magnitude, it becomes difficult to sort out the many threads.
In fact I would not be able to write this article had I not left Pakistan and emigrated to Europe some time ago. Being an embedded journalist in a warzone gives you a good view of the horrors of armed conflict, but rarely allows the opportunity to see the wider circumstances that led to bloodshed in the first place. And for Pakistanis that is exactly how it is. Our vision is so dominated by the abject misery caused by conflict, economic collapse and political instability that the root causes remain obscured. Had I not been fortunate enough to escape the lunacy, I doubt I would have been able to come to the conclusions I relate in this article.
5 Things Haunting Pakistan Today
- Others clean up our mess
This is not a lesson on basic hygiene. Soap-brands like Dettol, Safeguard and Lifebouy have run campaigns for the past many years extolling the prowess of their particular soap in exterminating germs. The Pakistani population knows it well. So much so that even middle and lower income households still find the funds to pay a cleaner to come regularly and clean up the house. The problem isn’t that Pakistanis don’t wish to keep their homes, neighborhoods and cities clean. It is simply that cleaning up your own mess is an indication that there is nobody lower in the social hierarchy to do it for you.
This inability to take responsibility for one’s own mess has its roots in the millennia old caste system of the indian sub-continent, and despite what Pakistanis might fool themselves into believing, this caste system is alive and well today. Except the Muslims are Brahmans and non-Muslims are the untouchables.
That is where the root problem rears its ugly head. Pakistan has a huge population in excess of 180 million. This is 180 million people with productive capacity and the ability to add value to society. However, the “I’m too good to clean my own mess” mentality means that a huge segment of Pakistani society does nothing other than clean up after their masters.
Pakistan simply needs to maintain a huge pool of illiterate, servile underclass citizens to sustain this mentality. Many will justify the stifling of the underclass with claims of providing employment. In reality all that is being achieved is the creation of a culture where there is always somebody else, somebody less fortunate, and of less value available to clean up the mess you leave around.
This mentality is not restricted to actual hygiene. The concept of ghulaami (servitude) extends to the very top of every organization. Barring the few at the top of their respective hierarchies, everybody is somebody else’s servant and is expected to acknowledge that he is not worth as much as his Chaudhry saab (chieftain) and must follow the instructions of his master without question even as he follows the instructions of HIS master.
And so Pakistan fails to utilize the potential of its population because everybody is always expending their energy and productive capacity to ensure that their masters have to do as little as possible and take as little responsibility for their actions as possible. This goes all the way down to the absolute most exploited and most powerless segments of Pakistani society, who are tasked with cleaning up the mess of an entire society and being derided for it because they have nobody to look down upon.
And that takes me to …
2. Ethnic, Caste & Class Isolation
If one acknowledges the immense impact of the ghulaami mentality, the massive gulfs that exist between the individual communities of this vast “united” nation become more obvious. Because Pakistani society, like India, is structured to always have an underclass that bears the brunt of their masters’ excesses, one’s relative position is the social hierarchy becomes of prime importance.
Each community, be it of an ethnic, caste or class nature, is always concerned with how many layers they control and how many layers they are controlled by. While the lowest classes always attempt to move up, as is the wont of the higher classes, the barriers to accessing the “good” crowd continue to grow bigger. The controlling classes will always attempt to minimize migration to their class for fear of the erosion of their power.
As a result of this, Pakistani society is extremely stratified. The class, caste, ethnicity into which one is born, determines ones life chances for the rest of one’s life. In order to sustain their positions in the hierarchy, each community becomes more isolated and the “unity” of the nation becomes a mere political slogan, the validity of which is eroded with each succeeding generation.
Many point to the lack of education and economic deprivation as the root causes behind the sheer absence of civic activism in Pakistan. I believe rather that these are symptoms of the underlying sociological cause, and serve only to exacerbate the situation rather than cause it.
After all, civic activism requires people to create communities and work in groups that transcend traditional ethnic, class and caste distinctions. In order for a nation of such varied peoples as Pakistan to work together, a breaking down of traditional social strata is required. However, the fear of dropping down the social ladder is such that only in the rarest of situations does this actually happen. Local leaders actively prevent the opening of schools in their areas in order to sustain the existence of a class of unskilled illiterate laborers that will plow their chaudhry’s fields, serve them with abject humility and maintain their relative position of power in the local hierarchy. And so it is in fact the class consciousness of the community that causes illiteracy and economic deprivation rather than the other way around.
I believe that the success of Islamist organizations in Pakistan can (in part) be explained by this sociological factor. Extremist organizations present the narrative of the trans-national ummah to the weak and dispossessed. A society in which their piety and not their caste, class or ethnicity determines their value. While many other factors play their part in driving young and old into the fanatical arms of the islamists, the basic reason that Islamist rhetoric sounds so reasonable to them is the fact that it allows them to discard the traditional caste, class and ethnic definitions that isolates them as individuals and prevents them from improving their life chances.
3. Unrealistic Frontiers
While the stratification of Pakistani society along ethnic, caste and class lines is an undeniable fact of life for any Pakistani, it seems to be a fact willfully ignored by government from the very foundation of the country. When Pakistan came into existence in 1947, its territory included modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh (West and East Pakistan as they were known then).
It seems insane that a country would try to create unity when it is was essentially divided right down the middle by their most ardent opponent, Mother India. Nevertheless it was assumed that the Islamic creed would ensure unity and Pakistan (East & West) would create a new beginning for the peoples of the sub-continent.
As later events would show, the plan did not take into account the very real ethnic, cultural and linguistic divisions that existed within this grand Islamic republic. The East Pakistanis, while greater in number, were systematically exploited, discriminated and robbed of their democratic rights by West Pakistan.
Pakistani school textbooks point to the Indians as the culprits who through their “underhanded dealings” and “nefarious designs” caused the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of modern-day Bangladesh. What these textbooks completely ignore is the fact that West Pakistan itself was the basic cause of the split. The Bengali people comprised the biggest single ethnic group of the initial Pakistan. They comprised more than 50% of the population and when the Bengali Awaami League, under Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman won 160 out of 162 East Pakistani assembly seats in the general elections of 1970( as opposed to Bhutto’s 82 PPP seats as a distant second), West Pakistan refused to acknowledge Mujib as the next Prime Minister. In 1971 after a large scale atrocities committed by the Pakistan army, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan and became the nation it is today.
Bangladesh is perhaps the best example of the unrealistic external and internal frontiers established by the British in collaboration with local leaders at the time of independence. Frontiers that did not reflect the natural ethnic, linguistic and communal borders that prevailed.
For instance the Durand line, that divides Pakistan’s western provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan from neighboring Afghanistan, has no basis in any real borders. This was merely the arbitrarily drawn line that indicated the frontier of British influence in the region. It does not take into consideration that the indigenous population on either side of the line to this day do not acknowledge it as a valid border. On either side live tribes and families that are related by blood. To them this border is a construct of a far-away government and any attempt by the government to enforce those borders is negated and opposed.
And yet the government continues to operate and develop policies that do not take into account this very real fact. As a Pakistani I too believe that a unified Pakistani identity and state is absolutely possible. However in order to structure the country properly, one has to create that structure keeping in mind the historical, linguistic, ethnic and cultural divisions that already exist. The attempt at disregarding these divisions in the name of the grand Islamic republic have failed, and will continue to fail. Not until they are recognized will it be possible for the country to move towards greater unity.
Which brings me to the next thing that is wrong.
4. Focal point of contention for foreign powers
This is a point that most Pakistanis will recognize. Pakistan is a rapidly developing country and is one of the Next Eleven, the eleven countries that, along with the BRICs, have a high potential to become the world’s largest economies in the 21st century. It is one of the largest producers of natural commodities, and its labour market is the 10th largest in the world.
Not only does Pakistan have the capacity to feed its entire population and still have enough left to export to the rest of the world, but it also possesses the largest natural gas reserves in the world, oil & coal as well as untold mineral wealth hidden well beneath the Balochistan plateau.
Now most Pakistanis know this. We have a major river system running the length of the country, mountains in the north, the sea to the south and the country lies right in the middle of the most viable corridor for china and central-asia to reach the sea. Pakistan has huge untapped wealth we know. The only problem is that so does the rest of the world.
For the past 60 years, Pakistan has been a bone of contention for the rest of the world. Every foreign nation has aimed to be Pakistan’s partner/master be it through force or friendly relations. And each of their rivals have sought to sabotage any possible development. And so Pakistan has come to be a battleground for several proxy wars, waged by national and ideological powers across the planet.
By no means do I absolve us, the Pakistani people, from responsibility for our own fate. However it is important to recognize that it is not the altruism of our allies that lie behind their interest in Pakistan, but rather this country’s vast unexplored resources, huge untapped labor market and the extremely strategic geo-political location of the country.
I also do not condemn foreign powers from attempting to control Pakistani resources. Realpolitik dictates that every national government works for the benefit of its own people, and if this includes manipulating another nation and exploiting its resources, that is fair game.
It is however necessary for Pakistan to acknowledge this if it is to have any hope of a future. Which brings me to the final point
5. Complete and utter blindness to the truth from decades of a militarily constructed national narrative
As a child of the 80’s raised in Pakistan on a steady diet of Zia’s educational propaganda, it is only by some fortuitous miracle that I have been able to discard the myth of the great Pakistani identity that so many of my contemporaries still believe in. Pakistanis find themselves in the unique position of having no historical identity upon which to base their national narrative. Like Israel Pakistan is founded exclusively on an ideological basis. However the Jews of Israel have a history that stretches back millennia which gives them a very solid foundation upon which to base their sense of national identity.
Pakistanis have had no such luck. A consequence of the creation of Pakistan was the complete negation of thousands of years of history and culture as part of the Indian sub-continent. Having identified India as the “great enemy” of Pakistan, all references to our shared identity with India were expunged from school curricula and instead replaced with completely fictitious histories that denied our nation’s roots and presented Pakistanis as a type of neo-Arab Islamic warrior. All Pakistani students are raised to consider Mohammad-bin-Qasim (an Arab invader) as the hero who started the conversion of the sub-continent to Islam. History books condemn Akbar, arguably the most effective and unifying of the Muslim Mughal emperors and instead extol the virtues of his descendant Aurangzeb whose fundamentalist and intolerant treatment of non-muslims fit neatly into the forced narrative imposed upon Pakistani children throughout their education.
No society can easily shake off the consequences of being sundered from its roots. But that is what Pakistan has done. It is this that has prevented successive generations of Pakistanis from acknowledging the real issues they face. They cannot acknowledge that the caste system is alive and well in Pakistan, because an Islamic society has no caste systems. After all our school textbooks present the Hindu caste system as a fundamental justification for the separation of Pakistan from India. As if simply calling ourselves something else could possibly wipe out thousands of years of cultural norms. Pakistanis cannot acknowledge that their “unity” is not real unity, but rather a military slogan. Pakistanis cannot acknowledge that the Pakistani nation was not divinely ordained and that the governmental structure does not represent the actual population.
In the aftermath of independence, the military’s need to construct a unifying narrative superseded any considerations as mundane as the truth of our origins. And unfortunately it is the children born after independence that have paid the price of this short-term thinking.
So What to Do?
I cannot claim to have any real solutions to the problems faced by the Pakistani nation. Nor can I claim that I have revealed all the problems that lie at the root of our dire situation. Corruption, violence and fundamentalism all play their parts.
However, I firmly believe that it is Pakistan’s basic identity crisis that prevents any realistic solution to our issues. Until we acknowledge our caste-mentality, we can never hope to create a meritocratic society where the individual’s actions and not his background determine his value. Until we break down our social boundaries, we cannot draw benefit from our hugely diverse population. Until we recognize the sheer wealth we possess as a nation we cannot rid ourselves of our perception as victims in need of a strong benefactor and neither can we hope to determine our own fate. And until we discard the fictitious military messianic national narrative and the confused identity it provides, we can never hope to come into our own.