August 14, 1947 is important in world history, for, an independent and sovereign country called Pakistan got added to world atlas on this day. I have a strong belief that the creation of Pakistan was one of the best things that could happen for the people living in this part of the sub-continent in late 1940s. One can debate and weigh the pros and cons of whether independence was more desirable on religious grounds, economic grounds, socio-political grounds, all of these grounds, or none of these grounds. But following the theory of ’benefits of decentralisation’, it can be safely said that decentralised, autonomous, and independent states have turned out to be more beneficial for people than what living in United India could have offered them.
People who then opted to become Pakistanis had very high hopes and expectations from the new country. They were keen to spend their lives in a system that was promised to be based on religious tolerance, equity, and justice. They thought that becoming free from the colonial rule would change their lives dramatically. A feeling that they would be ruled by their own representatives was a thrilling idea for them. What happened to their expectations is for historians to judge but here it may suffice to say that any change in their lives was much less spectacular than they had hoped.
Now that Pakistan has turned 59 this year, an impact assessment process has already begun to evaluate its post-independence performance. In this process, however, most analysts tend to ignore multifaceted importance and multidimensional significance of two very important notions — that is, ’freedom’ and ’Pakistan’.
Talking of freedom or independence, geographic freedom does not always denote other types of freedoms, especially economic and geo-political ones. How free we are in economic terms is evident from the statements of various rulers who keep on accusing their predecessors of accepting tough conditionalities by Brettonwood financial institutions — like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Once these accusers themselves become part of history, there is very little to substantiate their claims to have won back the economic sovereignty of the country. Their successors blame them for all the wrongdoings and the cycle goes on. Talking of our geo-political freedom, it was totally compromised from the very beginning when Pakistan aligned itself with the United States during cold-war era.
Coming back to ’Pakistan’, the word is used interchangeably for a country, a nation and the government of the day. Clearly these three are not synonyms and one cannot follow an ’accept all or reject all’ approach while dealing with the three very different entities. An appreciation or criticism of Pakistani nation or Pakistani government cannot automatically be implied to be an appreciation or criticism on Pakistan, the country, and vice versa.
An important methodological flaw in carrying out ’Pakistan’s post-independence performance assessment’ is that we are not conceptually clear about the prime variables — that is, Pakistan and independence. We have already faced the consequences of this conceptual ambiguity when immediately after the independence, criticism on Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the then ruling party of Pakistan, was considered as criticism on Pakistan. Those who differed with the League leadership were considered as traitors and unreliable persons. Loyalty with the ruling party and the rulers became one of the unwritten prerequisites to be a good Pakistani.
This approach has influenced the phenomenon of nation building from the very early days of independence. Since a prerequisite of being a good Pakistani was to be a good Leaguer, as a resultant of this old Muslim Leaguers like G M Syed and Hussain Shaheed Suharwardi were declared traitors when they dissented from the League high command and left the party. In the meanwhile what was All India Muslim League till the independence started splitting into various factions. The faction that happened to be in the government, by virtue of power, always declared itself as the ’true and genuine Muslim League’. Thus Fatima Jinnah’s Council Muslim League was not genuine when it had to compete with Ayub Khan’s Convention Muslim League, which was ’genuine’ simply because it enjoyed official blessings.
Nation building process, in itself got amended so frequently that after a certain period of time there was no consensus on what could be the binding force for Pakistanis. As one of my historian friends, Aziz Zafar Azad, says, "we got a country but could never build a nation".
Following the rules of the game set by Pakistan Muslim League of 1948, all successive governments (civil, military, semi-civil and semi-military) were (are) of the opinion that allegiance to the government is the binding force for Pakistanis. A vast majority of Pakistanis thinks that religion is the binding force for them whereas many others continue to believe that culture and ethnicity are their common bonds. Some people, like late General Ziaul Haq very cleverly blended religious as well as cultural and ethnic forces to create a hybrid nation where everyone was suspecting the rest as not being true Pakistanis.
Creation of Bangladesh in 1971 is attributed mainly to socio-economic and socio-political disparities between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. It revealed that there were some flaws in the earlier methodologies adopted to define and form a nation and was a major setback for those who advocated religion to be the only force binding Pakistanis.
Besides the partition of Pakistan, early 1970s also witnessed the phenomenon of mass emigration of unskilled Pakistanis mainly on economic grounds. This was followed by a wave of economic emigration of skilled Pakistanis in early 1990s (mainly through self-assessment schemes). Most of these emigrants opted for naturalisation in the countries of their employment whenever they found an option and are enjoying dual/triple nationalities in some cases.
This phenomenon is not only true for Pakistan, but one may find citizens of other developing countries including Bangladesh who are more than willing not only to emigrate but to opt for adopting their host country as their homeland. This puts paid to the theory of independence as being a factor of having a geographical entity alone. As soon as Bangladesh became independent three decades ago, its citizens started leaving their country in droves. Almost all of them were willing to trade their national identity for a better life in some other country. Same goes for Pakistan and Pakistanis. People love to live in a sovereign, independent country provided it offers them independence from want and deprivation, from inequality and discrimination. In order to pass on the fruits of independence to common people, independent states need to tackle the beast called poverty.
So what does the above trend means in the context of globalisation and economic liberalisation? It seems socio-economic condition of a country is the weakest link of the chain that is called ’nation’. This weakest link is very vulnerable and prone to snap in the presence of socio-political disparities which force people to look outside of their own countries for improving their socio-economic situation.
In the light of the above, to me the best way to measure the impact of independence is to gauge if it reduces socio-economic and socio-political disparities within the newly independent state.
Since its independence, Pakistan’s economy is reflecting a phenomenon of ’boom and burst’ and the country’s economic performance has never remained consistent. But on the whole Pakistan’s macro-economic indicators have improved. Unfortunately, this improvement has been unable to result in progress at the micro level which is creating a skewed and highly unequal income distribution across the various section of Pakistani society.
Looking at the socio-economic disparities, one finds that still a considerable segment of population in Pakistan is deprived of basic necessities of life. Throughout the 59-year history of the country, the governments have neither been able to provide equal (if not ample) opportunities to their citizens, nor have there been effective social safety nets to meet people’s basic needs.
The gulf between the rich and poor is widening which is leading to further socio-political disparities where the marginalised and the poor are practically excluded from the political process. The result is a frustrated, angry and tense society where VVIPs are enjoying the powers that even the Viceroy of United India could never think of. The Colonial rule has turned into colonel rule.
Higher authorities, no less than General Pervez Musharraf, seem to be aware of the fact that socio-economic and socio-political disparities are widening in Pakistan. While discussing the impact of poverty at an event organised by Pakistan Center for Philanthropy in July 2006, the General termed poverty to be the root cause of terrorism and religious fanaticism. To him, the poor cannot afford to go to schools and have to go to religious schools that create religious extremism. He further said that due to lack of medical facilities in public sector and extremely expensive treatment in private hospitals people have to seek treatment from quakes and pseudo-spiritual healers who further trap them in the vicious cycle of extremism which encourages many to become suicide bombers. I would congratulate Pervez Musharraf for doing a very valid analysis of the situation and arriving at the right diagnosis for the ills Pakistani society suffers from. But I would like to remind him that the phenomenon of suicide bombers never existed in the pre-independence society.
Our successive governments including the current one should not ignore the weakest link in the chain of nation building, (that is, across the board socio-economic development), if they are sincere in securing sovereignty and independence for this country and this nation in a true sense.
Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri is an Islamabad-based columnist and policy analyst.