The struggle for freedom from British rule was long and arduous, and by the 20th century it had given birth to two distinct forms of nationalism. The one championed by the Indian National Congress (INC) involved shedding religious identity at the political level, and forming a unified Indian front against the British. The Congress considered itself as the only party that could claim to speak for the whole of India, and all those who disagreed with it were deemed by it to be impediments in its struggle for freedom. Subsequently, it declared those who wanted to organise along religious lines as communal, with the term being fundamentally pejorative. Ironically, however, in its effort to formulate an inclusionary nationalist identity, the Congress was being fundamentally exclusionary by restricting the space for dissent, and monopolising the definition of anti-colonial nationalism.
Moreover, the colonial state apparatus had formalised religion into its structure. Ranging from legal codes to quotas for government positions, the Indian state was very much organised around religious lines. Hence, for the Congress to ask all Indians to let go of their religious identity in the political sphere, when in practice religion was so deeply infused in politics, was viewed by some to be deeply problematic. In light of all this, the All India Muslim League (AIML) gave an alternative form of nationalism that viewed the Indian struggle not merely as achieving freedom from British rule, but also through the lens of protection from religious majoritarianism.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah.Unfortunately, the nuance in Jinnah’s arguments is lost on many of those who have appropriated Pakistan as a country that was created to purify the Muslim population of India from Hindu influences. Steeped in xenophobia and filled with jingoism, the narrative of the creation of Pakistan that is usually told has created a population that is fundamentally bigoted. That narrative glorifies violence towards other faiths, portrays temporal battles as fundamentally religious, and provides an anachronistic commentary to demonise Hindus. It is then no surprise and tragically ironic that a country that was created to safeguard the rights of a religious minority has turned into a place where minorities do not feel safe. Whether it is fiery mobs running after members of minority communities or terrorist attacks targeting members of certain sects, the Pakistani state has failed to protect its minorities.
On the political front, the shortcomings of the Pakistani state are glaringly apparent.
The diverse ethnic-linguistic population of Pakistan organised into their own provinces naturally necessitated a federal form of government in which their apprehensions of being dominated by an overbearing centre would be allayed. Unfortunately, the centre-province relationship has remained strained, and despite having a federal form of government, Pakistan in practice has been predominantly unitary. Unequal distribution of resources and regional deprivation are still pressing issues in Pakistan. While it is easy, from a position of privilege, to dismiss those who raise their voice for a fair distribution of resources as unpatriotic and sermonise them to let go of their supposedly myopic interests, it would not help in bringing them together to work for the future of Pakistan. Only an approach that makes inclusionary development as its central policy can unify the presently divisive Pakistani nation.
Electoral politics in Pakistan remain enmeshed in networks of patronage politics that for the most part are fundamentally exploitative. The rural landscape is composed of landlords who by virtue of owning the means of production are able to mobilise votes for either themselves or a candidate of their choice. The reason why this arrangement has proved to be particularly enduring is because it gives its lower socioeconomic members a limited degree of access to the state through their overlords. Moreover, their reliance on their landlord to provide them their means of livelihood leaves them with little choice but to swear their allegiance to him. Part of the blame for this exploitative system rests on the mainstream political parties of Pakistan, which in their pursuit for electoral success have co-opted these networks rather than provide an alternative mode of mobilisation. And while much hue and cry is being raised on the issue of electoral reforms, it is indeed unfortunate that these underlying structural deficiencies are not being addressed.
As far as the rights of labourers are concerned, it is deeply unsettling that their concerns are rarely voiced by any of the mainstream political parties in Pakistan. All of these parties subscribe to the same neoliberal view in which organised labour is considered a nuisance towards the path of industrial development.
Little heed is paid to their meagre salaries, harsh working conditions, or maltreatment at the hands of authorities if they dare raise their voice for their rights. No leftist party in Pakistan has been able to acquire enough strength to adequately represent workers in parliament, and part of the reason is the way the left was emasculated by the state in its pursuit for industrialisation.
The biggest challenge that Pakistan faces right now is eliminating terrorism, which has caused unimaginable suffering to the entire nation.
While much progress has been made at dismantling the militant infrastructure through the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, much more needs to be done in order win a lasting battle against it. Action needs to be taken against all those who spread discord and promote hate speech, and space has to be taken away from violence-promoting narratives. The state would have to condemn militancy in all its forms, and work towards interfaith harmony. Economic uplift of deprived areas and provision of complete rights to everyone would have to be a part and parcel of any long term strategy, as local grievances coupled with abject poverty provide fertile grounds for recruitment into these militant outfits.
The present state of affairs in Pakistan certainly appears to be far from ideal. But the one glimmer of hope during these unsettling times is the continuation of the democratic set-up, and the slow yet meaningful march towards progress. Democracy allows free exchange of ideas, and forces government to be responsive towards the demands of the people. Unfortunately, the space for free expression is continuously shrinking in Pakistan, and for this, in addition to the state, the public is also responsible. The culture of declaring all those who do not blindly follow the official narrative as “unpatriotic” and vilifying those who ask difficult questions is rampantly pervasive in Pakistan. When the boundaries of acceptable limits of discourse is circumscribed only to meaningless praises for the state then very little can be expected to change. Unfortunately, “patriotism” in Pakistan is shifting all blame for its woes on external forces, without pausing to look inwards and determining where the country itself went wrong. It has become limited to empty rhetoric and chest-thumping jingoism. It is time to redefine patriotism to encourage inquiry and introspection. Those who highlight Pakistan’s issues must not be shunned as bringing dishonour to the image of Pakistan. In fact, they are those who are playing their role as responsible citizens by bringing attention to the myriad issues that the country presently faces. After all, problems can only be fixed once they are identified.
Nations do not succeed through an inflated sense of personal accomplishment and a refusal to reconcile it with present reality. And they surely do not progress by living in a perpetual state of victimisation. Only Pakistanis can change their fate, and for that to happen they must become active citizens playing their part for the betterment of the country.