AS Pakistan completes three quarters of a century as a sovereign nation today, it will be worth the effort to see where we stand. True, reviewing, analysing and making sense of 75 years of tumult, adversity and a few triumphs is not easy, but some major issues warrant examination, in order to consider the way forward.
The fact that the country has survived this long — the disastrous separation of the former eastern wing in 1971 notwithstanding — is itself no mean achievement, as naysayers had, during the freedom struggle, predicted that Pakistan would fold within a short period. However, survival is one thing; creating a prosperous and egalitarian society another.
The founding fathers had envisioned a welfare state where Muslims of the subcontinent could freely practise their faith and advance materially and culturally, and where adherents of other faiths could also live their lives as equal citizens. What transpired over the decades has been diametrically opposed to this noble vision, and sadly, given its present state, our founding fathers would struggle to recognise the country they had created.
There are numerous reasons behind our predicament, and many of our wounds are self-inflicted. Perhaps at the core of our perpetual crises is the fact that the constitutional order has been repeatedly thwarted, and a democratic culture has failed to fully take root. While the nation received its first constitution in 1956 — nine years after independence — only two years later, it would witness its first martial law — the first of several. The fact is that repeated military interventions have retarded the evolution of the political process.
Yet while the military has often overstepped its constitutional limits, civilian politicians are not blameless either. Their lack of ability to deliver good governance, and failure to root out corruption and cronyism often paved the way for ‘saviours’ in uniform to step in. Politicians at times have even invited the generals to ‘save’ the nation by getting rid of elected governments run by their political rivals, and abetted martial law regimes. Unless the democratic system is allowed to grow and evolve, we will be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the last 75 years.
Economic woes have constantly haunted Pakistan for the past 75 years. While there have been some bright spots — for example, the per capita income has grown considerably since independence, and poverty reduction efforts have borne some fruit — fundamental causes weakening the economy have not been addressed, which has resulted in cyclical financial crises. The economy has to an extent been dependent on foreign aid/handouts/rents; the embarrassing ritual of taking the begging bowl to multilateral lenders and foreign friends and benefactors has been repeated far too many times.
This has, in turn, affected national sovereignty. As some experts have indicated, Pakistan has experienced ‘growth without development’. Economic dividends have failed to reach all the people. As the masses toil to put food on the table, the entitled elites of a Third World country live First World lives. Unless economic justice is ensured, creating a welfare state will remain a pipe dream.
Foreign policy also needs to be re-examined. We admittedly live in a difficult neighbourhood, and relations with India have been toxic since independence, while the fact that Afghanistan has been used as a geopolitical chessboard by world powers has affected Pakistan immensely. But our mistakes have been considerable too — from allying with the West during the Cold War, to allowing militants to use our soil to destabilise others. The only success story on the foreign front has been our strong relationship with China. There are many other matters impeding progress, such as the discrimination faced by minorities; religious radicalism, especially since the Zia era; the twin ogres of terrorism and sectarianism; rampant corruption; prejudice faced by women; the population explosion; our education emergency, etc. Each of these issues merits a much deeper analysis in order to come to a solution.
Yet the story over the past 75 years has not been entirely negative. We are a resilient nation while Pakistanis locally and abroad have achieved much in literature, sports, the performing arts, entrepreneurship and the tech industry. Our expatriates have particularly made Pakistan proud. Our hardworking labourers have helped build the gleaming cities of the Gulf, while our professionals have reached new heights on foreign shores.
We are also a charitable nation, as Pakistanis have come forward generously to help fellow citizens in times of crisis, such as during the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters, etc. Our youthful population, if given the right opportunities and tools to compete with the rest of the world, can build Pakistan into a great nation. There is no magical solution to our problems, but hard work, the rule of law, a meritocratic system and justice for all can help make Pakistan the progressive welfare state its founding fathers hoped it would be.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2022