Living in a Cocoon

Nations do not always like to recall their weaknesses and flaws even though they must do so to move forward. Americans do not like to discuss slavery or their ancestors’ treatment of Native Americans. The British seek to gloss over their excesses during the colonial era. Turks dispute to this day that genocide was attempted against Armenians in the Ottoman era. But few nations advance a rosy national narrative in an unqualified way as some Pakistanis insist on doing, not only in viewing history but also our current state.

The white man’s atrocities against Native Americans or Black slaves might not be the subject of daily discourse but it still finds its way into articles, books and movies in the United States. British scholars research, teach and publish about colonialism without fear of being branded traitors to king and country. Elsewhere, a different view of one’s own history or a critical analysis of a nation’s performance does not result in abuse of the variety that comes the way of critics in Pakistan.

The Pakistani state has long tried to force a particular narrative of history down the people’s throats and excluded from academia scholars who refuse to conform. It is as if only one set of ‘facts’ and one set of explanations of these facts would help us forge and maintain national identity. The rise of electronic and social media has widely popularised the pathology of describing citation of facts contrary to our particular national narrative as ‘anti-Pakistan.’

This hyper-patriotism is no longer limited to a conformist view of history and historic events. The mere suggestion that we might not be doing as well as we think attracts the label of being ‘negative towards Pakistan.’ It is as if a Pakistani must turn a blind eye to anything that reflects poorly on Pakistan’s image. Celebrate when we win a cricket or hockey match but do not highlight it if an international publication accuses our country of harbouring terrorists; Repeat government officials’ claims about potential economic success but do not cite figures that disprove them.

It is almost as if we want to live in our own cocoon. We will be okay if we think positively. Talk about bad scenarios, cite statistics that point to our decline, quote others on weaknesses of our foreign and security policies and our countrymen react angrily. By their logic, a Pakistani should only work on improving others’ view of Pakistan, not try to alter the substance that leads to a poor image in the first place.

On December 17, 1971, the day after ‘‘all Pakistani armed forces in Bangladesh” surrendered to “Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C of the Indian and Bangladesh forces in the eastern theatre’’ according to the ‘instrument of surrender,’ none of Pakistan’s newspapers reported the surrender. Radio Pakistan had announced four days earlier that ‘‘the question of any surrender is ruled out because our troops are determined to lay down their lives.’’

The official statement on the momentous event comprised a total of 27 words. It read, ‘‘Latest reports indicate that following an arrangement between the local commanders of India and Pakistan, fighting has ceased in East Pakistan and the Indian troops have entered Dhaka.’’

The nation could not avoid facing the loss of more than half the country’s population and almost half its territory forever. But those in charge of the country’s fortunes at the time wanted to break bad news gently. In other matters, where the people might not find the facts out easily, keeping the bad news out of headlines is easier. Maintaining national morale and pride are often deemed more important than facing harsh realities.

The country might be served better by allowing reality to become part of national discourse, as is the case in most countries. Admittedly, nations need to feel good about themselves but those who talk about what went wrong or is likely to go wrong need not be dismissed as negative thinkers or anti-national. They are the much necessary antidote to contrived positivity and they make self-examination and self-correction possible.

Thus, it is important to remember every time we are in a self-congratulatory mood that we are the sixth largest nation in the world by population but only 26th by size of GDP on PPP basis and 42nd in nominal GDP. We have the world’s sixth largest nuclear arsenal and eight largest army. But our ranking in global firepower stands at 17th and Pakistan performs poorly in most non-military indices. Pakistan ranks 146 out of 187 countries in the world on the Human Development Index, which measures health, standard of living, and education.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranks Pakistan’s primary education at 136 out of 144 countries. Pakistan’s higher education ranking is 98 out of 144 while in math and science education our ranking is 104 out of 144. DHL’s Global Connectedness Index places Pakistan at 114 out of 140 countries. This shows Pakistan less connected globally than many countries poorer than itself. Should we just feel good or start discussing our failings before figuring out how to rectify them?