I-Day reflections (Daily Times (Pakistan))

On the 69th Independence Day of Pakistan, without in any way wanting to dampen the enthusiasm for celebration (some of which suffers from overkill and hype in the midst of the serious problems that face the country), it is not inappropriate to reflect on how we have fared as a state and society in the last 68 years. The 1857 First War of Independence, in which all communities fought against the British irrespective of ethnic or religious backgrounds, ended in defeat and the dismantling of the already immeasurably weakened Mughal empire.

Unfortunately the subsequent reprisals by the British (India having fallen into the control of the British crown after the infamous East India Company was abolished) fell most heavily on the Muslim elite, associated most closely in the colonialists’ minds with the defunct Mughal empire. This repression left not only the Muslim elite but even the Muslim masses marginalised and rudderless.

While the Muslim community drifted in directionless manner, an emerging Hindu middle class embraced English education and the opportunities it offered, the intelligentsia this gave birth to producing, amongst other schools of thought, a revanchist Hindu nationalist strain. Late attempts in the face of the dire circumstances Muslims found themselves in in the latter half of the 19th century spawned reformist movements such as that of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to embrace English education and catch up with their Hindu counterparts. Despite this disparity between the two communities and the Hindu nationalist revanchist strain, they were united in their struggle against British colonialism. This fact can be ascertained if the emergence, first, of the Indian National Congress and later the Muslim League and their close collaboration in the early years of the independence struggle are taken into account. Some historiography ascribes the later divide between the two communities to the British policy of ‘divide and rule’.

While the role of this insidious colonial policy cannot be denied, the real factor that queered the pitch for a united independence struggle was Gandhi’s insertion of, and reliance on, religious culture, tradition and beliefs as a mass mobilisation tool. Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a secular nationalist leader dubbed the ‘Ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity’, objected to the introduction of religion into politics for the sound reason that it would inevitably lead to a religious/communal divide in India’s diverse and complex mix of religion and ethnicity. For this perceived ‘insult’ to the wisdom of the Mahatma, Mr Jinnah was hooted out of Congress (at that time the close collaboration of the Congress and Muslim League was reflected in the fact of dual membership). Mr Jinnah’s disillusionment with the new, and in his view (and as subsequent developments bore out the prescience of) dangerous trend of using religion expediently for political purposes, persuaded him to leave the practical political field and repair to Britain. It was only years later, when events showed a virtually leaderless Muslim community floundering in the majoritarian climate promoted by Congress, and at the urging of towering personalities such as Iqbal, that he was persuaded to return and lead the Muslim League in its struggle for independence and the rights of the considerable Muslim minority.

Unfortunately, the very trend Mr Jinnah had fought against earlier was now so entrenched that he too had no choice but to lean on religion as a motivating and mobilising tool. This of course had the unforeseen consequences of deepening the religious divide and leaving the door ajar for the Muslim struggle to be hijacked after independence by the religious lobby that had overwhelmingly been opposed to the Pakistan demand on the basis of opposition to territorial nationalism. Meanwhile the incapacity of Congress to sensitise itself to and address the concerns of the Muslim minority, and the sabotage of the Cabinet Mission Plan (which Mr Jinnah had accepted in an effort to keep India united) by Nehru and Patel made partition inevitable. In fact partition meant the division on religious lines of just Punjab and Bengal, with its horrendous attendant communal massacres and uprooting of millions on both sides.

Pakistan therefore was born in fire and blood and the events of partition and the Kashmir war that followed soon after left scars that have yet to heal, even after all this time. The perceived threat from bigger neighbour India helped shape the security state paradigm that still echoes in our national narrative. That milieu provided the inherited postcolonial state with its structures intact, of which the military and bureaucracy were the best organised and most powerful, over and above the political leadership or parties, the opening to dominate national life incrementally, ending up in periodic military dictatorships.

This development had enormous deleterious effects on the aspirations of the people for democracy and a fair federal state structure. It is not without importance therefore to remember that despite these adverse post-independence circumstances, the people of an ethnically and religiously diverse country have struggled consistently for, and made strides towards, these aspirations. If today we harbour discontents with our democracy, that is partly our impatience at years of missed opportunity because of the overweening role of the establishment, partly the perceived (and in some respects real) failure of successive elected civilian governments to perform up to the people’s expectations. Such discontents must impel us towards perfecting an imperfect democracy, not once again, as voices from many corners are increasingly inclined to do, return us to the failed and damaging flirtation with autocracy and dictatorship that has extracted such enormous costs in the past. *