Watching a talk show jointly produced by Indian and Pakistani TV channels in connection with 60 years of independence of both countries, I couldn’t help noticing the stark contrast between the orientation of both countries per view the national character. For one, a mature awareness, rather a proud assertion of national identity has developed over these 60 years while the other is still squirming over questions of ideology, ideals stretched between theocracy and secularism, between democracy and military hegemony; that is India and Pakistan, heirs to the destiny of one sixth of humanity, with over a billion having chalked out their course and 160 million still lurking in uncertainty.
One could easily notice the confidence of all the Indian speakers as they defended their case over Kashmir, their internal politics, and even the complex issue that the English language has become in our country at least. The Indian host so conveniently quipped that English was also an Indian language, and why not? Probably this is the sense of ownership that comes when national identity becomes the foremost feature of identity. Of course one can seriously argue over the limits of nationalism as required by human norms and morals, especially in context of the World Wars which were primarily conflicts of national interests between the powers of that time, and then it is the same “nationalism” that binds the Indian nation over the issue of Kashmir. But just the spectacle of cohesion that the Indian nation has become over a general consensus on the fundamentals of secularism and democracy is indeed impressive. One can argue over the nature of these two foundations of their country but very few will deny the existence of that sense of pride over their nationhood that all Indians share. They have long decided their national character.
We are still bickering over Pakistan’s foundation despite the fact that we were the ideological nation, not them. We are still confused over what that ideology meant. No one is ready to take on the challenge of amalgamating the diversity of this nation into a definable national character. Americans, from the rightist evangelicals to the extreme atheists, all cite the dreams of their founding fathers, the aspirations of the pioneers who fled religious persecution in Europe to find a new haven in the Americas; the Indians their secular democracy, and we look bewildered when confronted with the military-politics equation, the extremist and moderate label.
It’s not like these questions are unanswerable, or this issue insolvable in context of our peculiar circumstances. The problem is that we have been polarized deeply over fundamental ideological lines with the two sides unwilling even to sit down together and afford each other the basic courtesy of country-mates. We are polarized to a point where the religious right presents the seculars as anti-islam and the seculars on their part denigrate the other side of the divide by considering them outside the fold of general society, and therefore not worthy of any consolidations that would otherwise be commonplace for any fellow citizen. How can national cohesion even be a distant dream in such circumstances???
Despite all other irritants, military dictatorships constitute the biggest tragedy of Pakistan, which have bred these extremist tendencies and divided society to a point where both sides are at logger heads with each other. Military dictatorships, having little grass roots support rely on exacerbating ideological divides in societies to generate bigoted blocs of either extreme whose only concern is the stability of the ruling regime for the perpetuation of its “threatened” values. Islamisation was the war cry in Zia’s time, “enlightened moderation” a bait prepared by Musharraf. Also, besides being a planned goal, ideological rifts are inadvertantly created in societies when force is used by military dictators to enforce their personal inclinations on the society which causes alienation within ideologically divergent segments of the society. More than anything, it is these mantras that we are forced to believe have been revealed onto the chosen ones, that far from initiating a constructive debate deepen rifts by building on animosities. Democratically elected governments cannot afford to rely on brutal force and end up engaging the masses, whatever their inclinations, and engagement has always proved to be an emollient for extremist and violent tendencies. After all, how many Women Protection Bills could Benazir pass in her tenure, despite all the rhetoric only because the Pakistani sentiment, fortunately or unfortunately (requires another debate) could not and still cannot bring itself to terms with such reforms. Media, however can prove to be one of the debating grounds where probably some sort of consensus could be developed.
Besides the obvious need to rethink the military approach to solving all political problems that Pakistan faces, democracy itself besides being a convenient alternative also involves the populace, literally enfranchising them. No doubt even the Indian cart puller shouts Jai Hind, even though the same hindustan forces him to sleep on footpaths; the footpath holds glamor because he shaped it. The realisation of the Rising India dream may not reach him but he’s nevertheless a part of it. The impoverished in Pakistan would definitely not share this enthusiasm with their Indian counterpart. India is in the hands of Indians; Pakistan isn’t. It is and has always been in the clutches of some grade 21 servant of the state, gripped by the task of “redeeming” the nation. Democracy empowers individuals and just the awareness of common goal and aspirations builds on the feeling of nationhood. How wonderful it was to see the same zeal and zest in any city of the country the Chief Justice went to. Today the Paksitanis can actually boast of that struggle, take pride in it. The best thing about the APDM is that all those political parties that were being described as seperatists (another hyperbole to nationalists) are a part of it. But probably, within time we’ll want to move beyond this and involve the common man of this country in a more concrete process; of free and fair elections, of accountability, a time when it will be an accepted norm. If just this struggle can give some common ground to the unharbored diversity of ideology, race and ethnicity, imagine what part democracy could play in building the confidence of this nation.
Maybe some years down the road, our intellectuals, anchor persons and members of civil society in general won’t have to face the predicament of balancing loyalty with conscience. The Shahid Masoods and the Aslam Baigs will be able to denounce military dictatorships with all the moral authority behind their back.
Then will Pakistan really come alive with the potential of the rest of the 160 million people of South Asia.