Pakistan’s actual fault lines

(First published on August 1st, 2020)

If you are a Pakistani fascinated by the country’s history there is a good chance you have been brought up on a controlled diet. There is one narrative that is set by the state. The one that starts with Bin Qasim’s attack on Sindh and ends with the countless explanations for the country’s existence. You know that version because it has been scrutinised constantly. But then there is a counter narrative. A meta narrative that emerged in defiance. About the country’s chequered history, it’s civil military imbalance, its misplaced priorities and at times the ridiculousness of its existence. Both these narratives grew in reaction to something and are therefore incapable of doing justice to the very complex reality of this nation’s existence. The beauty of these narratives is that they very effectively hide the real fault lines and centres of power. Let us focus on some of these fault lines to comprehend what is holding us back.

Pakistan’s first fault line is called ideology. You would think that a country with a Muslim population of over 96% would have no trouble on that front but then you would be wrong.

Consider this: On August 11, 1947, only days before the birth of the country, its Founder delivered an illuminating speech on the country’s future promising religious freedom to all citizens amid other things. The speech was heavily censored before release and the audio record of it is still not found. Ask yourself why. Because somebody in the government thought that this speech by the country’s Founding Father contradicted the ideology of Pakistan. Let it sink in. The words of the only man who won you freedom through a democratic and legal struggle were not palatable for somebody who was already interpreting ideology for you.

But what is this ideology? The two-nation theory? Islam as the state religion? The Quaid’s words did not contradict either. The Indian majority that was viewed as a constant threat was nearly packed away into a separate nation. Gone. Done away with. Now the minorities that still lived in the country had opted to stay here. They had a right to expect some reward for their faith. Also, a nation that was founded to escape the majoritarian fanaticism currently on display in India could not subject the minorities it inherited to the same kind of absolutism. Notice I do not bring up the matter of fundamental human rights because in the mid-40s the world was a different place with the vestiges of Nazism and fascism still dividing the global discourse. And the Nazis had already shown the world how minorities could be othered and deprived of all human rights. The fact that real interpretation of Islam had stopped a millennium ago, much before the emergence of modern states, did not help. In fact, Allama Mashriqi’s Nazi-inspired Khaksar Tehreek had attacked and beheaded a member of the Ahmedi community in the formative years of the country. So, an argument existed at the time in support of stripping minorities of all their rights. But Jinnah knew better. And his views were not contradicting either of the two ideologies. But somebody thought they were.

Could it be the permanent ruling class of the country which Hamza Alvi once dubbed as the “salariat” and we now call the bureaucracy? The answer to this would take us to the second fault line. But let us first handle this one. Why Pakistan was created and why the country’s bureaucracy thought that censoring its Founding Father was a good idea were two different things. The first is settled for good by Narendra Modi’s government in India today. The second has shaped how Pakistan has grown to this day. In 1947 the country may not have too many great examples of pluralism to emulate but countless exist since then. This was supposed to be a dialogue between the state and society but a permanent class which co-opted the term ‘ideology’ for its own survival has doubled down on the first raw draft and refuses to budge. From there the interpretation has bled into curriculum books, other institutions of the state and even the Constitution. Until it is allowed to be updated with time, we will stay lost in the jungle. This matter becomes of urgent nature when we take into account what we went through during the War on Terror when a group of Muslim Pakistanis killed around 80,000 co-religionist fellow citizens because of the different interpretations of ideology.

The second fault line is not the civil-military divide, although that too exists to a lesser degree. The second fault line exists between untrained politicians and an experienced bureaucracy. Pakistan is ruled by the latter. No matter who sits atop the greasy pole called the executive, it is invariably the bureaucracy which runs the machinery of governance. That is why General Musharraf could do precious little without the help of his old friend Tariq Aziz. That is why every prime minister’s principal secretary is considered so powerful. When we choose to criticise the men and women at the top we deliberately ignore who actually wields power. The example of the Musharraf era devolution comes to mind. The ruler back then was powerful. The bureaucracy did not approve of the plan to change dynamics at the grassroot level. Who would if it meant losing control on ground? It quietly went along and waited till the time the amendment lost the Sixth Schedule cover and then recaptured the lost space.

You are fascinated by all this talk of reforms. During Nawaz Sharif’s time the then planning minister often spoke about bureaucratic reform. But we did not even see the first draft of the proposals. Now, Dr Ishrat Hussain talks about these reforms. We still await a coherent and comprehensive set of proposals to this effect. An interesting case study in this context is of Daniyal Aziz, the man who knows the weaknesses in the structure by heart. When the Musharraf era ended and the National Reconstruction Bureau headed by Aziz was dismantled, he failed to return to the parliament in the following elections. And when he did somebody had convinced the ruling PML-N that he should be kept away from projects relating to reform and instead be asked to defend the government like an ordinary if aggressive spokesman. The total deconstruction of an able man with the knowledge of all bodies ever buried was to ensue. And where is he now?

Our third fault line is of the feudal mentality. Not feudalism but of the feudal mentality. Feudalism has waned with the natural course of land redistribution over generations, but the feudal mindset still survives. How should the rich and powerful behave is predetermined by society’s powerful elite and that’s why hardly anything ever changes.

There are other fault lines like racial and lingual prejudices and overpopulation but we will return to them another time. For now, we need to find a way to fix the above three or we will not progress an inch.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2020.


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