Decades of despair

Published August 12, 2022
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

“PROMPT and drastic measures are necessary to save Pakistan from virtual bankruptcy; but our rulers seem to be content with obtaining foreign gifts to feed the people and relying on heavier doses of foreign aid for maintaining some semblance of continued economic development.” These words could have been written yesterday. But they weren’t. They appear in a Pakistan Times editorial marking the 11th anniversary of independence in 1958.

And there are other laments in the same comment that continue to resonate. For instance: “For almost a decade now the political arena has been the safe playground of men cursed with unlimited greed and limited ability. Every year has been a year of crisis, and every season the season of intrigue. It almost seems that the only stable factor in our political life has been a constant instability.”

One could go back further, to the cusp of independence and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly 75 years ago. That speech is rightfully remembered chiefly for its evocation of a secular future for the promised land.

But it incorporated much else, notably the Quaid’s displeasure with a smorgasbord of inherited ills, ranging from bribery and corruption to black marketeering and the evils of nepotism and ‘jobbery’. That last word has fallen out of fashion, but it means “the practice of using a public office or position of trust for one’s own gain or advantage” — and who has been innocent of that in the ensuing decades?

Read: The nation at 75

The ills that Jinnah enumerated have proliferated exponentially over the years. Which helps to explain the nation’s trajectory over the past three quarters of a century.

Pakistan was ruled by four governors-general in its first decade, and four generals over the next five decades. The list of prime ministers and civilian presidents is much more extensive but not particularly illustrious.

India, to its credit, had only one governor general after Lord Mountbatten (who endured briefly after partition) and has never been ruled by a general. There have been occasions in the past when, as a non-aligned secular democracy, it was seen as a potential role model for Pakistan. But that was long ago.

Why do the laments of the 1950s still ring true?

Pakistan never seriously heeded its founding father’s advice about separating religion from the affairs of state. Its minorities diminished in both numbers and influence as the years went by.

Back in the 1950s, when the Objectives Resolution came up for debate in the Constituent Assembly, the most coherent criticism was offered by Hindu members, many of them affiliated with the Congress, from the eastern wing of the country.

The only senior West Pakistani politician to raise any objection was Mian Iftikharuddin, owner of the aforementioned Pakistan Times. The newspaper’s concerns, however, were not restricted to emerging manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism. Commenting on New Delhi’s ban on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the wake of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, it expressed the hope that this would be “regarded by the Nehru government as the first step in the fight against the forces of evil and darkness”.

If it turned out to be the only step, and “after a few weeks or months the RSS, under some other name, raises its ugly head, and its allies, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Akali party and the princes are allowed to exist and stage a comeback of their perverted ideology, then the future is dark and dismal and the Mahatma has lived and died in vain”.

It took a long time, but the RSS, in essence, did eventually make it to power. When, and whether, that darkness will lift remains an open question.

Perhaps the most profound tragedy of the subcontinent’s past 75 years is that instead of Pakistan learning something from India in better times, India seems to have imbibed the least desirable aspects of Pakistan’s experience.

Read: Is this a crisis like none other?

There is, of course, a third candidate in the partition stakes, although Bangladesh understandably dates its independence to 1971 rather than 1947. The events of half a century ago inevitably play into Pakistan’s narrative, given the nation lost more than half its population, in the process repeating the agonies of partition.

The 1971 division could almost have been achieved peacefully, given a dose of wisdom that remains elusive. It’s harder to say the same about 1947. The British have justifiably been accused of abandoning the ‘jewel in the crown’ with unseemly haste, but would a more gradual process merely have allowed more time for the appalling bloodlust that accompanied independence?

We’ll never really know. And, although the past is ever-present for a variety of reasons, what really matters is the future. In India, it looks grim. In Pakistan, it’s hard even to conjure up a vision of what lies ahead. Lamentably, more of what has already been suffered — an indefinite purgatory — remains the likeliest shape of things to come.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2022

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