Intertwined fates

Published March 19, 2021
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

YOUM-I-PAKISTAN will be commemorated with the usual fanfare next week. Another year, much ado about nothing? Not if one does the maths and realises that this year is not like any other year. It is 2021, the 50th anniversary of East Pakistan’s secession.

Unofficial histories of pre-1971 Pakistan and its eventual dismemberment remain suppressed in the intellectual and political mainstream. Comparisons between present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh can help us uncover these suppressed histories, even as they compel us to consider our putatively shared futures.

One such comparison circulating on social media recently maps contemporary development indicators in Pakistan and Bangladesh. On the whole, the people of Bangladesh are better educated, healthier and wealthier than their Pakistani counterparts. Meanwhile, the former’s macroeconomy, as measured in GDP growth rates during the pandemic, foreign currency reserves and number of private banks operating in the country, is also far more stable and dynamic.

The simple lesson that one can draw from such figures is that the Bangladeshi state has, more or less since its inception, given greater priority to what we can broadly call ‘economic development’, and more specifically the health, education, employment and other human needs of its population. In contrast, the Pakistani state has dedicated a far greater chunk of resources to non-productive heads, defence most prominent of all.

We can bring to the fore truths about a shared past.

It is thus that Bangladesh’s development indicators are better than Pakistan’s; this is no small feat, given that pre-1971 East Pakistan trailed West Pakistan across the board. Over the past 50 years, then, Bangladesh has caught up with and accelerated past Pakistan. And a macroeconomic and developmental comparison would show ‘national security’ in India has not thwarted ‘development’ as much as it has here.

I want to suggest that comparisons and overall analyses of Pakistan and its neighbours — particularly Bangladesh — can and must go further. In part, I want to emphasise the imperative of transformative politics across the subcontinent; I strongly believe that the fates of the two billion people of this region, or, more specifically, the working pe­o­ple that comprise a majority in all countries, are intertwined. By contemplating a shared future that is based on dignity of the working majority we can also bring to the fore truths about a shared past, however painful.

Comparative macroeconomic and developmental indicators tell only a partial story. Seen through the lens of high growth rates under the regime of neoliberal globalisation, Bangladesh and India have certainly been bigger economic ‘success’ stories than Pakistan. Yet in this same period, those societies, like ours, have become increasingly unequal and divided.

Across the subcontinent, a feel-good ‘development’ narrative dominates the mainstream, featuring shopping malls, housing schemes, private schools/ hospitals and the 21st-century consumer-citizen. In some periods — like in Musharraf’s first few years — this story dovetails with spectacular growth rates. But this developmental model is premised upon unsustainable demand for non-renewable energy, pillaging of mineral resources, and, yes, exploitation of working people, especially historically oppressed castes, genders, religious groups and ethnic-nations.

Patterns in India and Bangladesh are, in this sense alone, not all that different from Pakistan. Whatever overall per capita figures suggest, when one gets into the nitty-gritty a not dissimilar cast of winners and losers emerges. Formal statistics are also misleading because of the high percentage of workforce that operates in unaccounted sectors, or what in the mainstream is called the ‘informal economy’. During the pandemic, tens of millions of working people across all South Asian countries have lost the already precarious and exploitative work they had and been plunged even further down the class and status ladder.

Finally, even if India and Bangladesh are not dominated by a powerful military establishment, the logics of colonial power relations are writ large across both societies. It is no secret how rapidly Indian democracy and secularism are degenerating under Modi’s watch, and Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League regime in Bangladesh is matching Pakistani authoritarianism.

South Asia is the world’s most vulnerable region to climate change. It is a demographic explosion in the making. We in Pakistan must name the fact that our neighbours have a system not beholden to a security establishment, and that this allows at least some pro-people politics. This is another way of demanding peace with our neighbours, and a reckoning with the past.

But neoliberal development is not a sufficient horizon for us or them. It has proven dystopic for millions. We can and must do better.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2021

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