When the nation was busy preparing for its 50th Defence Day, a September war was raging on social media. It is remarkable how a few simple questions about history can reduce us to our baser instincts and waylay us of the ability to reason without offending or being offended.
In this war of irrationality, patriotism was being confused with jingoism and McCarthyism; and reasoning with petulance, bitterness and unjustified anger. But, this wasn’t the first time we witnessed such anger. Only recently, Bollywood released the trailer of the film Phantom and we lost it, again.
The negative reaction to the film was understandable, but things got really ugly when we started attacking our own for choosing to differ with us. That’s not how a country, already haunted by the ghosts of terrorism and extremism, is supposed to behave. And it certainly shouldn't be publicising every ridiculous movie made on Pakistan. It says something that even after our efforts, this film bombed on the box office.
When it comes to glimpses of intolerance in our society, they are never hard to come by. But, in this particular case, there was an added factor behind the harsh reaction:
This year, the BJP government had decided to celebrate India’s ‘victory’ in the 1965 war with a carnival. While the reaction of the Pakistani state was calculated and intelligent (like organising a martyrs’ day ceremony in the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi), to certain fringe elements, Pakistan needed to react in kind.
Pakistan observes Defence Day on 6th September each year, the official date of the start of the war. So, whoever disagreed with the version taught in schools came under severe criticism. When those being ambushed finally decided to reply, the angry exchanges reminded us of the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu.
To me, it doesn’t matter in the least whether we won or lost in the war. In fact, if we are even discussing it today this fervently, it shows we have allowed saffron India to define us. Just like Nazi Germany, the BJP-RSS’s India is culling dissent with the help of war hysteria and carnivals, and to its great joy, we oblige by compromising our own space for free speech and inquiry.
That’s not all.
There is another serious casualty here: Cyber trolls perhaps do not understand the significance of their own work. Whenever they attack people with a different point of view, they in fact make it harder to market patriotism.
What patriotism is not
A cursory glance at the realities of life in Pakistan will tell you that the weapons-grade jingoism and McCarthyism you come across is not patriotism. I call it weapons-grade because it is weaponised, lethal and can easily kill people.
There are countless examples around us already.
Jingoism is an outcome of obsession. Patriotism is not obsession. McCarthyism is an outcome of hate and fear bordering on paranoia. That, too, cannot be patriotism.
What patriotism is
In my humble view, patriotism is nothing but love. Love for your homeland, love for your country.
Just like I have a sense of ownership for my house, which leads me to ensure its safety and betterment. I feel the same loyalty towards my country.
When you are in a defining moment of your history, it is only natural to witness a tussle between different ideas, versions of history and visions for the future. So this debate about the outcome of 1965 war could be expected.
Yet, both sides fail to understand that in the bigger, more crucial, existential struggle: they are on the same side.
We consider the contemporary phase of history as the defining moment because we are literally fighting the forces of darkness here. To the terrorist, moderates like you and me, and religious scholars who do not condone their methods, all are heretics and therefore worth killing.
And the fight we know is far from over.
As the state has finally begun to reassert itself and the enemy is squeezed hard, there is a much-needed emphasis on rebuilding. Amid all these developments, another vacuum needs to be filled.
Since its very inception, the country has used a religious narrative to identify itself. And this policy has backfired badly in the past decade. Not only are extremist forces trying to undermine our state, using the very same religious narrative, we have still failed to evolve a more organic narrative, free of ideological trappings.
Which is to say, there is a need for an open-minded approach towards the state and the society. This cannot be stressed enough. The value of national symbolism, though, is also of critical importance, as it can harmonise the society and lay the foundation for a sustainable culture.
The role of the Pakistani liberal and moderate
In the past 67 years, as the state has pandered to extremist tendencies, the moderates and the liberals have faced crises of faith and betrayals of trust. Even when the state decided to finally confront the extremists, the moderates have been targeted and killed in broad daylight.
This pervasive insecurity is behind the bitterness and cynicism you see in this class.
The moderates are convinced that something will soon go wrong and the state will resume the support of the same fanatics who have caused so much pain and suffering for the state and the society. But in case you haven't noticed, here is the thing: the extremist ideology does not work for the state anymore.
If the moderates dare to overcome their cynicism and the trust deficit, and tactfully stand up for their values, an alliance between them and the state is almost a foregone conclusion.
On the other hand, the state is facing a crisis of faith of its own, as it confronts multiple challenges:
Its right wing allies are all gone. Even if someone from the right wing ventures back, the evident purpose is not to help the state, but to obtain concessions for the forces that are attacking the state and its people.
While it combats the terrorists, a hostile India seems only too willing to challenge its existence.
And then, there are mounting expectations of the allies that it will not only prevail against the domestic terrorists but also help stabilise the region.
Meanwhile, a lot of blood has been spilled, and there is incredible pain.
In this situation, liberals and moderates can either shrug their shoulders and say, ‘told you so’, or help shape the future.
If we manage to lay down the foundation for a democratic and open society, parochial issues like differences over the versions of history will sort themselves out. Right now, the need for working together is more urgent.
Hope for an open society
If you are an incorrigible optimist like me, you will notice that the seeds of an open society are already around us. In many ways, the terrorists have made things easy for us.
Today, institutions are strengthening, and parliamentary democracy is taking root. We have a ferociously independent media. After seeing so much blood, the common man on the street is wary of violence and the philosophies that justify its unrestrained use.
There is widespread thirst for knowledge, economic activity and progress. Today’s Pakistan is better integrated with the world. Cultural activities, art and literature after remaining offline for a decade, are coming back online. For someone with a mission, it is exceedingly easy to educate people and sensitise them.
For me, there are two ways to affect change: you could either offend the common man’s sensibilities or try to shape it. All that is needed is a lot of patience and a little bit of tact.
Back to patriotism
Today, patriotism can work as cure. In the past 67 years, there were repeated attempts to bulldoze diversity in the society. But over the course of those years, federating units grew a common bond between themselves.
Today, the people of all provinces are more alike than you think. So a Pakistani identity doesn’t essentially come at the cost of our regional, lingual identities. In fact, identifying with the state can help in further preserving them.
The state, too, needs to realise that the desire to see absolute conformity to its views is the reason why it very nearly lost control to the extremists.
A state that takes pride in its cultural and intellectual diversity can never be accused of being a hard state. It only gets stronger, instills a sense of ownership among its people and earns strong popular support.
Let us then stop the disbelief and outrage, and work to build a more patriotic and open society.