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Unchanging agony

July 11, 2011

‘PAKISTAN struggles for survival’ was the headline of the lead story of America’s well-known magazine Life in its issue of Jan 5, 1948. The subsidiary headline of the story ‘Religious warfare and economic chaos threaten the newly born nation of 70 million Moslems’ might as well have been printed today if ‘newly born’ were changed to 60-plus years old and 70 million to 180 million.

Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) included, the population figure should be 350 million. From 30 million to 180 million in 64 years is a ‘great leap forward’ of its own kind.

In an era of fast change, the agony of Pakistan and the world’s perception of it has remained unchanged. Religious warfare, then restricted to the borderlands and Kashmir, today devastates the whole country and is getting deadlier. Pakistan was then said by Life to be “fighting a close battle with economic bankruptcy”. If it has not yet lost that battle it is only because of foreign doles and routine rescheduling of its huge debt.

Life then noted: “except for ailing Jinnah, Pakistan has few national leaders”. The only other noteworthy public figures for the magazine then were Lady Nusrat Haroon, the ruler of Khairpur state Mir ‘George’ Alimurad Khan Talpur and a “more forceful, toothless, nearly blind, barely literate” wali of Swat who kept track of his warring subjects with an “efficient field-telephone system”.

That brings back the memory of an evening in Malakand after the states were abolished. A more vigorous, better educated son of the founding wali, Jahanzaib Khan, then told the political agent of the merged states that Ayub Khan had taken over his state only to hand it back, sooner than later, to the warriors whom his father had tamed with a combination of cunning and brute force. A generation later, he was proved right.

The relaxed mir of the desert and the warrior wali and mehtar of the mountains have since made way for regionalists and terrorists. The national scene remains denuded of leadership more than it was in 1948. The extinct hereditary nawabs or tribal chieftains were closer to the people and more caring than are today’s elected representatives. If yet another reason is to be found for discontent spreading wide and fast, it is corruption in public services and the long delay by the courts in punishing criminals, settling civil disputes and enforcing the rights of the poor.

Disputes of all kinds that in the frontier regions were decided by the princes, political agents and their jirgas in hours, days and weeks — and gratis — now linger for years and cost a fortune.

To compare the state of the economy or the infrastructure in 1947/48 and now is not easy nor would it be an accurate exercise. But a humiliating comparison must not go unmentioned. The rail route in miles may be the same today, or less, but the extent and quality of service rendered by the railways then was a matter of pride. Now it is a matter of shame.

The concept of a welfare state was cast aside. Deliberate destruction of the railways that served the masses is one instance of this, and the low per cent of the budget spent on education another. Here is yet another less quoted example. The production of cars over the years has gone up from 33,000 to 176,000 (more than five times) but the number of buses produced has fallen from a peak of 1,500 to less than 500. The Punjab chief minister, the other day, inaugurated a car taxi service aided by the government. A taxi ride costs no less than Rs10 a km. But not one bus has come on the street in three years out of the 8,000 promised with subsidies in fares from the federal government for the capital cities.

The blame for religious strife, lawlessness and a faltering economy lies squarely on past and present leaders. Religious radicalism that found its first expression in raids to liberate Kashmir at the dawn of independence now pervades the constitution sparing no sphere of life or institution.

Ziaul Haq’s slogan for the army was Jihad fi sabil lillah. If the army has to defend not just the physical frontiers of the country but the faith of the people as well, it can only do so by taking over state power. In fact, that is what it has been doing in the past. Unfortunately, even now justifications have been provided by some political leaders for the army to take over the reins of power.

As per its duty, the army should guard the country’s borders and the state should work for the well-being of the people of the country. The people can take care of their own beliefs. The ongoing ‘Arab Spring’ is not about faith but about democracy, civil rights and ending decades of oppression. There is a lesson to be learned here.

The writer is a retired bureaucrat.

kunwaridris@hotmail.com