Reinventing Pakistan

Published on Chowk, by Pervez Hoodbhoy, March 23, 2010.

It’s March 23, Pakistan Day, and time for the usual flag-waving. But let’s face it: things have not gone well for Pakistan. It has been a state since 1947 but is still not a nation. Missing is a strong common identity, mental makeup, shared sense of history, and common goals. The failure to effectively integrate flows from inequalities of wealth and opportunity, absence of effective democracy, and a dysfunctional legal system … //

… In Pakistan’s case this does not have to be centuries. Its people are diverse but almost all understand Urdu. They watch the same television programs, read the same newspapers, deal with the same irritating and inept bureaucracy, use the same badly written textbooks, buy similar products, and despise the same set of rulers. Slowly but surely, a Pakistani culture is emerging. 

But nationhood is still not guaranteed. Both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke apart after seventy years. If Pakistan is to chart a path to viable nationhood, there must be a national dialogue on its most pressing problems. What might be a suitable manifesto of change?

First, Pakistan needs peace. This means that it must turn inwards and devote its fullest attention to ending its raging internal wars. The sixty year long conflict with India has achieved nothing beyond creating a militarized Pakistani security state which uses force as its first resort even when dealing its own people. Attempts to solve Kashmir militarily have bled the country dry and left it totally dependent on foreign aid. The army’s role must be limited to defending the people of Pakistan, and to ensuring that their constitutional and civil rights are protected.

Second, Pakistan needs economic justice. This demands a social infrastructure providing decent employment, minimum incomes, and rewards according to ability and hard work. In rural areas, where old structures of land ownership remain intact, sweeping land reforms are urgent. India abolished feudalism upon attaining independence but the enormous pre-partition land holdings of Pakistan’s feudal lords were protected by the authority of the state; the land reforms announced by Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were hardly serious. But even in the urban areas there is gross inequality; mothers commit suicide in the shadow of 5-star hotels because they cannot feed their children. The military is a landlord and capitalist class that owns vast assets having no relation to national defense. Most countries have armies but, as many have dryly noted, only in Pakistan does an army have a country.

Third, Pakistan must shed its colonial structure of governance. Different historically constituted peoples must want to live together voluntarily, and see the benefits of doing so. A monster-sized centralized government machine sitting in Islamabad cannot effectively manage such a diverse country. As in India, Pakistan has to be reorganized as a federation where provinces and local governments hold the critical economic and social powers, with defense and foreign affairs held in common. In particular, Islamabad’s conflict with Baluchistan urgently needs resolution using political sagacity rather than military force. Blaming India will not achieve anything – the Baluch are angry for good reasons.

Fourth, Pakistan needs a social contract. This is a commitment that citizens shall be treated fairly and equally by the state and, in turn, shall willingly fulfill basic civic responsibilities. But today Pakistanis are denied even the most fundamental protections specified in the Constitution. The poor suffer outright denial of their rights while the rich are compelled to buy them. Rich and poor alike feel no obligation to fulfill their civic duties. Most do not pay their fair share of income tax, leading to one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world.

Fifth, our education needs drastic revision in the means of delivery and content. Money goes some way towards the first – better school infrastructure, books, teacher salaries, etc. But this is not enough. Schools teach children to mindlessly obey authority, to look to the past for solutions to today’s problems, and to be intolerant of the religion, culture and language of others. Instead, we need to teach them to be enquiring, open-minded, creative, logical, socially responsible and appreciative of diversity.

For Pakistan to succeed, it must want to become a normal nation held together by mutual interests rather than some abstract ideology. This is the only way to deal with the multiple civil wars that have started around us. (full text).
(Published in Dawn, 23 March 2010).

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