Re-imagining Pakistan

Almost every discussion of Pakistan, especially in India, inevitably tends to be about the logic and raison d’etre of the country’s creation.

The process of partitioning a sub-continent along religious lines did not prove as neat as Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had anticipated. Mr. Jinnah was a lawyer who saw partition as a solution to potential constitutional problems in an independent India.

In his first address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947 –exactly 67 years ago today – Mr. Jinnah had said: “I know there are people who do not quite agree with the division of India and the partition of the Punjab and Bengal. Much has been said against it, but now that it has been accepted, it is the duty of every one of us to loyally abide by it and honorably act according to the agreement which is now final and binding on all…. One can quite understand the feeling that exists between the two communities wherever one community is in majority and the other is in minority. But the question is, whether it was possible or practicable to act otherwise than what has been done. A division had to take place. On both sides, in Hindustan and Pakistan, there are sections of people who may not agree with it, who may not like it; but in my judgement there was no other solution, and I am sure future history will record its verdict in favour of it. And what is more, it will be proved by actual experience as we go on that that was the only solution of India’s constitutional problem.”

It is clear from Mr. Jinnah’s statement that he only saw partition as a constitutional way out of a political stalemate, as he saw it, and not the beginning of a permanent state of hostility between two countries or two nations.

This explains his expectation that India and Pakistan would live side by side “like the United States and Canada,” obviously with open borders, free flow of ideas and free trade. It is also the reason why the Quaid-e-Azam insisted that his Malabar Hills house in Bombay be kept as it was so that he could return to the city where he lived most of his life after retiring as Governor-General of Pakistan.

We all know now that partition and the birth of Pakistan were not simply the end of an argument about constitutional options, as Mr. Jinnah had thought.

The entire country was plunged into communal violence, hundreds of thousands of people from both sides were butchered and millions had to flee their homes.

Instead of living as good neighbours like the United States and Canada, India and Pakistan have gone on to become adversaries in a state of constant war, a situation that has not benefitted either country but has damaged Pakistan even more.

The territory that constituted Pakistan was undivided India’s economic backyard and could not immediately provide trained manpower to lead the new country’s administration or military.

While many Muslims migrated from India to Pakistan as a result of the violence that also drove Hindus and Sikhs out of Pakistan and Muslims mainly out of Punjab, others moved to take advantage of economic and employment opportunities in the new country.

For several years after independence, higher educated migrants from India – Muhajirs, as opposed to sons of the soil – secured better jobs and higher positions in the new state of Pakistan.

Over the years, Pakistan evolved into an Islamist ideological state, a short-cut to resolving the complex inter-ethnic, social and economic dynamics among its peoples.

After the loss of its eastern wing, which became Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan has been completely dominated by one ethnic group, the Punjabis, who tend to favour the ideological model for Pakistan and are heavily represented in the military, the media, and the bureaucracy.

Political scientist Benedict Anderson, in his book ‘Imagined Communities,’ defined a nation as “an imagined political community, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

According to Anderson, a nation is a socially constructed community, joined by the imagination of people who perceive themselves as part of that group.

Many writers, including Salman Rushdie, have argued that Pakistan was “insufficiently imagined,” given the ambiguities inherent in the demand for Pakistan.

As a Pakistani born well after partition, and who has known no other homeland, I understand much of the critique of Pakistan. But I am unable to dispense with the idea of home and millions like me now know only Pakistan as their country. We are willing to discuss its history objectively and chart a different future for Pakistan but for us Pakistan is our homeland, which we will defend and improve.

Pakistan’s median age today is 21, which means that 90 million of its 180 million inhabitants are less than 21 years old and have not seen either the 1947 partition of India or the 1971 separation of Bangladesh.

For the sake of these young Pakistanis, a reimagining of Pakistan is needed, going beyond the bitterness of the 1947 partition and the subsequent disasters inflicted upon Pakistanis by their own rulers and leaders.

Pakistan, like any other nation, is not a monolith. Its people have energy, talent and aspirations for a good life like anyone else. Most foreign visitors to Pakistan, including Indians, will tell you of our hospitality, our warmth and the capabilities of individual Pakistanis they meet.

One can disagree over or even be agnostic about whether the creation of the state of Pakistan in August 1947 was a tragedy or not. But there is no doubt that the failure of Pakistanis to create a more tolerant and democratic state and the difficult reconciliation between India and Pakistan have proved catastrophic.

Ever since their nation’s creation, Pakistanis have felt compelled to defend their nationhood and to constantly define and re-define their identity.

Pakistan’s unfortunate history may justify the description of Pakistan as being “insufficiently imagined,” but imagination is by definition not a finite process.

An entity that is insufficiently imagined can be re-imagined.

Just as the imagination “can falsify, demean, ridicule, caricature and wound,” it can also serve to “clarify, intensify and unveil.”

Several Pakistanis are working, albeit with great difficulty, to re-imagine Pakistan as an inclusive, pluralist, democratic, modern state that works toward the well-being of its own people, instead of being preoccupied with endlessly defining itself, especially in relation to its neighbours.

From its inception Pakistan was seen as an anachronism by many. It also assumed permanent hostility from India whose leaders were opposed to partition and had predicted the demise of the new nation.

The dispute between the two nations over the Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which remains unresolved to this day, enhanced Pakistan’s confrontation with India.

Unsure of their fledgling nation’s future, the politicians, civil servants and military officers who led Pakistan in its formative years decided to exacerbate the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims that had led to partition.

Very soon after independence, “Islamic Pakistan” was defining itself through the prism of resistance to “Hindu India.” The attitude of some in India helped create that binary.

Short of resources and burdened by inheriting a large army, Pakistan also sought great power allies to help pay for the economic and military development of the new country.

The partition of British India’s assets in 1947 had left Pakistan with one-third of the British Indian army and only 17 percent of its revenues.

The military started out as the dominant institution in the new state, a dominance it has perpetuated over the years.

After several years of exercising behind-the-scenes influence, General Ayub Khan assumed power directly in 1958 and ruled through martial law. Three further direct military takeovers followed. The military has directly or indirectly dominated Pakistani politics and set Pakistan’s ideological and national security agenda since 1958.

Some scholars attribute Pakistan’s troubles to its inception and the ambiguity about what it means to be a Pakistani. In the words of Chatham House scholar Farzana Shaikh (author of Making Sense of Pakistan) “It is the country’s problematic and contested relationship with Islam that has most decisively frustrated its quest for a coherent national identity and for stability as a nation state capable of absorbing the challenges of its rich and diverse society.”

The success of the Jihadi experiment against the Soviets in collaboration with the United States and much of the non-communist world encouraged Pakistan’s strategic planners to expand Jihad against India, and into post-Soviet Central Asia.

Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the presence on its territory of Islamist militants from all over the world, was the outcome of its desire to emerge as the center of global Islamic resurgence.

Ironically, not all Pakistani leaders supporting this strategy were motivated by religious fervor. In most cases, they simply embraced Islamism as a politico-military strategic doctrine that would enhance Pakistan’s prestige and position.

The focus on building an ‘ideological state’, however, has caused Pakistan to lag behind in almost all areas that define a functional modern state.

At the moment the ‘insufficiently imagined’ Pakistan, is the world’s only nuclear-armed Muslim country that has been described as slowly sliding towards state failure for at least the last two decades.

As a Pakistani, it offends and worries me that the rest of the world sees my state as being constantly on the brink of failure. I am not willing to retreat into a shell and blame the rest of the world for asking tough questions about my country. I, along with other of my countrymen, want to find answers to the world’s tough questions.

The return of chaotic democracy has exacerbated Pakistan’s ethnic, religious and social divisions even as it has had the positive effect of giving its people a voice.

The country’s most powerful institution, the military, is having to contend with several parallel insurgencies and is no longer able to fully ensure order or security.

Islamist extremists have become sufficiently emboldened to attack army headquarters and major military installations.

Although almost 36,695 Pakistanis have been killed by terrorists since 2008, both civilian and military leaders have yet to demonstrate resolve in confronting the challenge of terrorism.

Pakistan is strategically located at the crossroads of three significant regions: The Gulf, Central Asia and South Asia. It borders Iran, Afghanistan, China and India, all of whom are important for different reasons.

Still, Pakistan’s economy is stagnant, its population is increasing rapidly, and its institutions of state are too tied to a national ideology rooted in Islamist discourse to be able to address its multi-dimensional challenges.

With terrorists trained in Pakistan showing up all over Europe and in places as far from one another as Mali and Indonesia, Pakistan’s change of direction is now a global concern.

It is no longer easy for Pakistan’s military or civilian elite to create a semblance of stability with covert arrangements with the United States or with China.

If the influence of Islamists in Pakistan continues to rise, it would most likely be increasingly adversarial towards the U.S. and the west.

Islamist enthusiasm for creating an Islamic East Turkestan would not sit well with China. This would only increase Pakistan’s isolation.

In any case, Pakistan’s direction as a nation cannot and should not be determined by the U.S. and other outsiders and the principal actors in this process would have to be Pakistanis.

Despite the constant re-writing of constitutions, Pakistan is far from developing a consistent system and form of government.

Political polarization persists between Islamists and secularists, between civilians and the military, and among different ethnic and political groups.

Pakistan’s pursuit of strategic objectives disproportionate to its capacity has been inadvertently encouraged by its alliance with the United States.

One element of national power –the military one—has been developed at the cost of all other elements of national power.

Pakistan’s GDP stands at $222 billion in absolute terms and $ 547 billion in purchasing price parity — the smallest economy of any country that has so far tested nuclear weapons.

Twenty two percent of the population lives below the poverty line and another 21 per cent lives just above it, resulting in almost half the people of Pakistan being very poor.

It is little comfort for Pakistanis living in poverty when they are told that poverty across the border in India or Afghanistan is even starker.

Soon after independence, 16.4 percent of Pakistan’s population was literate compared with 18.3 percent of the much larger population in India.

By 2011 India had managed to attain 74.04 percent literacy while Pakistan’s literacy rate stood at around 55 percent. What was a 2 percent difference in literacy rates has expanded into a 20 percent difference in 67 years.

With a population of 180-190 million out of which 60% fall in the working age category of 15-64 and another 35% under 14 years of age, Pakistan has a demographic dividend which can also turn into a demographic nightmare.

The low literacy rate and inadequate investment in education has led to a decline in Pakistan’s technological base, which in turn hampers economic modernization.

The disproportionate focus on ideology, military capability and external alliances has weakened Pakistan internally.

There is an alternative vision of Pakistan as a pluralist, multi-ethnic, modern democratic Muslim state functioning under rule of law for the material well-being of all its citizens.

But in recent years, those articulating or supporting this alternative vision have been marginalized as a result of the dominance of Pakistan’s national discourse by Islamists and Islamo-nationalists.

Reimagining Pakistan involves changing the nature of the Pakistani state, from an ideological Islamic one to a state that that is pragmatic in defining its national interest and functional in attaining it.

The first step in reimagining Pakistan would be to abandon the narrow ideological paradigm of Pakistani nationalism.

Pakistan is here to stay and no one in the world wants it dismembered if it functions effectively as a responsible international citizen.

Armed with nuclear weapons Pakistan does not need to live in fear or insecurity.

The state of insecurity fostered in Pakistan is psychological and should now be replaced with a logical self-confidence.

Once pluralism and secularism are no longer dirty words in my country, and all national discussions need not be framed within the confines of an Islamist ideology, it will become easier for Pakistan to tackle the Jihadi menace.

The shift away from ideological nationalism to functional nationalism –“We are Pakistanis because we were born in Pakistan” as opposed to “We are Pakistanis because our forebears resolved to create an Islamic state”—will help change the milieu in which various Islamist extremist and Jihadi groups recruit and operate in Pakistan.

Pakistan must also overcome archaic notions of national security. Instead of viewing ourselves as a ‘warrior nation’ we should see ourselves as a ‘trading nation’ that can take advantage of our location for economic purposes.

High literacy, global connectivity, increased agricultural and industrial productivity, and a prosperous citizenry would be the goals of the state in a re-imagined Pakistan.

These objectives would replace Pan-Islamism, Jihadism, and pursuit of parity with India and Strategic depth which have been Pakistan’s unattained ambitions of the past.

Only by reimagining itself can Pakistan find peace with itself and its neighbours and stop being viewed by the rest of the world as a troubled state, a failing state or a crisis state.