Our post-colonial society despite its apparent independence shows unmistakable signs of unstoppable deterioration affecting all walks of life.
When we look around we discover how our hopes of maintaining quality and order - legacies of the Raj - have faded away with the passage of time. Let’s enumerate a few things, from mundane to sublime. We hardly find decent tailors in our cities, even in the metropolis, who can stitch us a decent pair of trousers and formal jacket. Why? Because good tailors came from the colonial times and dwindled to insignificant number in the conditions of ‘freedom’.
In the first three or four decades after the independence they made people dress nicely from officers to office clerks but no longer. Now we have people in the offices donning baggy trousers who they keep rubbing their loins in public. Bicycle rider was invariably issued a challan or was fined for traffic offence as it was taken as a proper means of transport and rider was required by law to have his bicycle fitted with a bell, dynamo and reflector. And today even a high acceleration SUV can ply freely on the road without headlights or brake lights. We had the phenomenon of corruption but it was at a manageable level and the corrupt never ever dared to flaunt the fruits of their corrupt practices. But now the corrupt are our role models with the outlandish display of their tainted wealth.“Which nation once inherited an extensive railway network with countless passengers, and now counts only its dead from accidents caused by human failure and obsolete equipment”?, asks F.S. Aijazuddin in his recent column which triggered this write-up.
Similar things can be said about all the things we inherited from the colonial era. Lahore, one of the three film producing centres in the subcontinent, quietly buried its film industry and nobody batted an eyelid.
Classical music, a receptacle of our aesthetic and spiritual assets, which was popularised by the technological means of audio-visual presentation in the colonial set-up, is now a museum piece on the wall of oblivion. Colonial educational institutions produced three great scholars in Punjab who won Nobel Prize in physical sciences. And our post-independence education has churned out ‘scientists’ whose claim to fame is their assertion that they can get electricity from genies for the national grid. The decay is as unstoppable as the list is endless.
A very brief look at what colonial system built and how we failed to build on what was worth preserving may help us to understand the causes.
That colonialism here as elsewhere was exploitative and had an element of in-built coercion is beyond doubt. What may be debated is the level of exploitation and use of coercion that accompanied the process which had both dehumanising and humanising effects on the colonised. Treating the subjugated as enslaved had the intrinsic tendency to take them as lesser human beings. And as a logical corollary, the use of coercion, at times brutal, was thought to be legitimate in order to make the people of occupied territory live the way that suited the interests of the occupying force. It denied the ‘subjects’ agency to make choices in the conditions of freedom which dehumanised them. At the economic level all available surplus produced by the local population was appropriated forcibly or through a mesh of skewed laws and sent back to so-called ‘mother country’.
What was humanising on the other hand was the colonialism’s transformative power as pointed out by Karl Marx in the case of stagnant Indian society. It introduced us to modern science and technology challenging the tradition and superstition, and enforced the rule of law, an entirely new concept, in a polity ruled by the whims of despots and tyrants. This was liberating for the masses who not only groaned under the oppressive weight of class and caste structures but were also at the mercy of megalomaniac rulers bound by no law.
The Raj introduced mechanical mode of production, built large infrastructure, established socio-juridical institutions and opened science-based educational and vocational centres accessible to all, at least in theory, in a society that thrived on privileges and upheld inequality as a religious and cultural value.
The ruling elite which got power in the wake of emergence of new state of Pakistan at the end of colonial era proved hopelessly unequal to the task entrusted to it by an accident of history. This was a servile class comprising recipients of colonial largesse known as ‘toadies’. They were a parasitic segment propped up by rents that they got from the lands gifted to them by colonialists for their ‘services’ –loyalty to the Gora Raj. They were as backward as the areas they were handed on a silver platter. Landlordism and tribalism with their primitive tendencies held sway. Political parties or groups which represented their interests never waged political struggle to get free of colonial talons. Nor they built any grass root level organisation. They in fact abhorred mass mobilisation against the foreign rule which, they rightly feared, could eventually strike at some of their privileges.
It’s a historical irony that the class created and patronised by the British colonialists in our region proved to be rabidly anti of what the Britain otherwise proudly stood for; reason and rationality. In the aftermath of the Partition the transfer of power occurred and the rot set in because the new hollow elite usurped the right to rule but shunned the responsibility of leadership. Their notion of ruling is inseparably linked with loot, plunder and maintenance of privileges. They are guilty of serous dereliction of historical duty that has accelerated the process of deterioration of all the good things bequeathed to us which could have served as a basis for further advancement.
Things have come to a pretty pass. Sadly the more the past recedes the more we are reminded of it. Good things evoke the nostalgic memories of the colonial times because we have become increasingly indifferent to quality. The upshot is that people have stopped dreaming. A society which loses its dreams is surely heading for a crash, sooner or later. Inability to look beyond today makes tomorrow an uncertain possibility. Hope is born of certain possibilities. Bereft of hope an individual can commit hara-kiri but the society carried by the undertow of chaotic despair enters a cul-de sac with no opening to anywhere. Not being anywhere means being nowhere. That’s where we are at this juncture. — email@example.com
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2020