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Eternal damnation

December 07, 2012

OURS is a peculiar country, by any measure. The institutions and functionaries of the state, in particular, never cease to surprise. If there were a global prize on offer for the state that is most adept at beating the proverbial dead horse, Pakistan would surely be on the list of nominees.

The Lahore High Court’s recent ‘verdict’ instructing the federal government to build the politically suicidal Kalabagh dam is the latest evidence of the absurdity that passes for state conduct in this country. Given that there has been no banter on the subject for years, it is baffling that the superior judiciary would choose to fan the flames of the controversy at the present juncture.

Then again, judges these days just cannot seem to avoid being in the eye of the storm for any length of time. They appear to have been taken in by the hype about the judiciary being the new lynchpin of Pakistani democracy, and particularly the claim that ordinary people look up to judges to uphold basic rights.

Political parties — whose mandate it is to represent the people — have responded cautiously to the court’s pronouncement. Especially interesting is the posture that has been adopted by parties whose primary constituency is in Punjab, including the PML-N. Both the Sharif brothers, the younger less scrupulously, have emphasised that the dam cannot and will not be built in the absence of ‘consensus’ amongst the provinces.

Unless something incredibly dramatic happens, there never will be a consensus. But then again our state institutions have historically paid little heed to democratic imperatives in a diverse and complex society. The state has always presumed to know exactly what the public interest is, and claimed that all of its actions are designed to protect what it defines as the public interest.

The sad reality is that there are still many otherwise intelligent people in this country — typically the best educated — who ape this attitude of the state. Their argument is roughly that too many cooks spoil the broth, and that certain decisions need to be taken in the ‘greater national interest’ which might not be very palatable to some but are ultimately necessary for the benefit of all.

This is the quintessential ‘Pakistani nationalist’ position. We are a composite nation of Muslims, they say, so why don’t we all act in the interests of Pakistan? What is all this business about being Sindhi, Pakhtun, Baloch, Seraiki and so on?

To be fair, this is a sensibility that is inculcated in the vast majority of us especially — though not exclusively — through the school system and media. In principle, it would be ideal if all of us did share a sense of belonging to a shared Pakistani identity.

But for all of the state’s efforts, both persuasive and coercive, a large number of people in this country — arguably a majority — cling on to their ethno-linguistic identities, and wear them on their sleeves. This is not because they are trying to create impediments to the collective cause, but because they have often been disenfranchised in the name of the so-called ‘greater national interest’.

Controversial proposals such as Kalabagh dam only reinforce suspicions. Yes it is true that we need to address power and water shortages urgently. But Kalabagh dam is not the only possible option. In fact, if the ‘experts’ bothered to pay attention to the growing consensus around the world, big dams are often the worst possible option because of their innumerable social and environmental fallouts. Even if we are not willing to think deeply about ecology and the like, the imperative of political consensus simply cannot be ignored. We can wish it away with all our might but the identity crisis that afflicts the Pakistani state is not going to go away. In fact pretending it is just a figment of a few troublemakers’ imaginations is just going to make things worse.

For liberals, conquering the beast of ‘extremism’ is the most important and immediate challenge facing the country. Indeed, it is often described as an existential threat.

I do not agree that ‘extremism’ is a stand-alone issue that trumps everything else. But even if the liberal alarmists cannot be moved, perhaps they can be convinced that ethno-linguistic identity — which is fundamentally secular in its essence — is as big a bulwark against ‘extremism’ as anything else.

It is all too easy for us to drop a few bombs every once so often on ‘terrorists’ in one or the other tribal agencies up north. What are we to do about the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people all over the country who are being schooled — formally or otherwise — in the art of ‘jihad’, either against the proverbial white infidel, or against home-bred Pakistanis hailing from another sect? For example, many journalistic accounts have documented that jihadis are being produced a dime a dozen in the Seraiki belt. Assuming this is true, are we eventually going to have to conduct a military operation in Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan?

Or is there a more reasonable, long-term approach to thinking about the problem? Surely the entirely secular Seraiki nationalist movement, in whatever shape it exists, offers a better antidote to the Maulana Masood Azhars of the world than random bombing raids?

Unfortunately, too much of what has posed as ‘debate’ vis-à-vis Kalabagh has focused on technical and managerial aspects, and not enough on the crux of the controversy. The judiciary is not equipped to make decisions on such political matters, let alone overstepping its constitutional mandate. But too many of us also continue to look at Kalabagh through the wrong lens.

At stake are questions of political and economic equality, as well as the multi-national character of the country. These are not minor issues, and their resolution will require much patience (and healing to boot). But the first challenge is to at least recognise that the issues are real.

All of us want power and water, but some of us already have more than others. It is time to allow those who have less, to both call themselves by their own name, and then get their fair share. Or is eternal damnation (pun intended) for all of us a better option?

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