What does it really mean to be Pakistani? On this 14th of August, we would do well to reflect on this question. When preparations for Independence Day kicked off a week ago, with cities and towns across the country kitting themselves out with lights and flags, they were accompanied by a not unexpected flood of uncritical patriotism; on television, in the print media, and on the radio, celebrities and political leaders mouthed the usual platitudes and made the same solemn intonations they do every year, proclaiming their unconditional love for Pakistan and all that it stands for. Precisely what this entails, however, is something that remains unremarked.
Consider some of the things that have happened in the Land of the Pure this past week. Once again, dozens of people have been killed by terrorist violence in Quetta. Responsibility for the attack on the city’s legal fraternity has been claimed by both the so-called Islamic State and a faction of the Pakistani Taliban but predictably enough, the government has instead chosen to lay the blame for the atrocity on hidden foreign hands seeking to disrupt the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. On Friday, the government also managed to succeed in its longstanding desire to impose even greater restrictions on free speech and expression by passing a draconian Cybercrime Bill that enables it to more comprehensively stifle dissent and persecute those who deviate from whatever orthodoxy it chooses to peddle.
Both of these events have been accompanied by a reinforcement of two standard narratives that have long been deployed by the government and establishment, namely that Pakistan’s problems can be attributed to external machinations, and that the expansion of state power and commensurate curtailment of civil liberties is required to fight militancy and extremism. Those who dare to question these arguments are invariably slandered with accusations of treason and betrayal, with it automatically being assumed that those casting doubts on matters of policy pertaining to ‘national security’ must necessarily be on the payroll of the same ‘foreign hands’ invoked to explain away Pakistan’s travails.
The problem, of course, is that shorn of the ideological blinders imposed by the state, it becomes easy to how we remain trapped in a maelstrom of our own making. In the sixty-nine years since Pakistan came into being, successive governments, military and civilian, have done all in their power to somehow legitimise their rule, and the elite-led system of politics over which they have presided, through the opportunistic use of religion. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, and women, have been systematically sacrificed at the altar of political expediency by regimes attempting to shore up their support by conceding ever more ground to political actors propagating increasingly parochial and narrow interpretations of Islam. This tendency has only been exacerbated by the establishment’s penchant for counterproductive strategic alignments – such as with the Saudis and the United States in the 1980s – that have enabled the most violent and virulent forms of extremism and intolerance to flourish in this country.
Foreign intelligence agencies may very well be fomenting instability in Pakistan, but it denialism of the worst kind to suggest that we ourselves have had no role in constructing and nurturing the infrastructure of terror in this country. Indeed, after the most recent round of carnage in Quetta, much noise was made about the lack of implementation of the National Action Plan. What was missing from all this sound and fury was even the slightest acknowledgment that any long-term counter-terrorism strategy crafted in Pakistan is likely to fail unless there is a complete and total rejection and disavowal of the many different militant and sectarian groups that inexplicably continue to receive the support and protection of the state. When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind, and when decades are spent indoctrinating people into believing that those who do not subscribe to their belief system are less than human, and when billions are then spent to arm and train these zealots to act proxy warriors, is it really surprising to see them eventually turn their guns on their erstwhile patrons?
Pakistan has been bleeding since it came into existence in 1947. The traumatic events of partition, when hundreds of thousands were killed and millions more were displaced, were soon followed by instability and conflict during the country’s formative years; unrest in Balochistan in the late 1940s (and beyond), language riots in Bengal and anti-Ahmadi violence in Lahore in the early 1950s, the repression of workers and progressive political parties in the 1960s, the wanton killing in Bengal in 1971, the suppression of the MRD in Sindh in the early 1980s, sectarian killings and religious militancy since the 1990s, the list goes on and on. All this death and destruction has taken place amidst grinding poverty and deprivation, an economic system dominated by a small, privileged elite, a political framework geared towards marginalising the many while protecting the few, and a stubborn, possibly cynical, refusal by the powers-that-be to take any meaningful steps towards substantively addressing the very real challenges Pakistan faces.
Pointing out that these are problems of our own making does not make a person unpatriotic. Arguing that these troubles might be rooted in the continued adherence to institutions that perpetuate the exclusion and disempowerment of significant sections of the population does not constitute a treasonous statement. Asking questions about the often counterproductive role played by religion in Pakistan’s public discourse does not imply loyalty to shadowy foreign forces. Suggesting that complex problems cannot be addressed by always resorting to force and authoritarian legislation is not something the goes against the national interest.
Unfortunately, the opposite is largely the case. Those who ask questions – about the government and the establishment, and the ways in which they go about conducting their business – are pilloried as enemies of the state, deserving of nothing more than opprobrium and hate. However, as the 14th of August dawns on Pakistan, and millions across the country wake up to the sound of military parades and a cacophony of advertising by corporations seeking to cash in on patriotic sentiment, it is again worth asking what it means to be Pakistani. Does it mean staying silent while minorities are killed in their places of worship? Does it mean cheering as women are killed and tortured for their failure to conform to patriarchal norms? Does it mean ignoring the disappearance without a trace of hundreds of people in Balochistan? Does it mean unquestioningly accepting a system in which the levers of power remain in the hands of a small political, economic, and ethnic elite?
If that is what it means to be Pakistani, if being Pakistani simply entails smiling vacantly and accepting the status quo, and if the 14th of August can never be anything more than an empty celebration of mediocrity and disappointment, a jingoistic paean to an imagined reality that has no relation to what actually exists in the Land of the Pure, then it is a form of patriotism that we could frankly do without.