February 23, 2020
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Frayed At Fifty

Pakistan is struggling to build a democratic polity after decades of military rule

Frayed At Fifty

AS Pakistan completes 50 years of existence, it has little to celebrate. Its polity has been battered by long bouts of martial law and even longer periods of religious, ethnic and economic turmoil. Democracy and democratic institutions are still in nascent stages and have yet to take root. The country has had three constitutions so far and the third, and present one, has repeatedly been tampered with. And since the 1970s, relentless Islamisation has made things more difficult.

Through all these upheavals, the social sector has been consistently neglected. There are more illiterates today in Pakistan than there were at Independence in 1947. Education standards have fallen and health care has deteriorated. Infrastructure is crumbling, being chipped away as it is by an ever-increasing population. Pakistan has one of the highest population growth rates in the world, the highest in Asia. Agriculture has suffered from lack of research and support: on its 50th anniversary, Pakistan suffered the ignominy of food riots. It is this seemingly endless litany of failures which has prompted observers to term Pakistan a failed state.

But what is overlooked is that all these problems were expected from the very beginning. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his speech as president of the first constituent assembly of Pakistan, on August 11, 1947, gave his countrymen due warning of what to expect and guard against. As Ardeshir Cowasjee, a columnist for the Dawn , a newspaper founded by Jinnah, points out: "This speech was Jinnah’s creed. It was much quoted, bits of it were trotted out by all and sundry on every possible occasion, at each hint of disaster or unrest or persecution, but never once has it been honoured or adhered to by any man who has subsequently had anything to do with the leadership of the country." Has Quaid-e-Azam’s vision been betrayed? It would be pertinent to recall his speech. Jinnah started off by defining the first duty of any government: "To maintain law and order so that the life, property and religious beliefs of its subject are fully protected by the state." He warned the new country of the "biggest curses" afflicting the subcontinent—bribery, corruption, nepotism and black marketing—decreeing that they be "put down with an iron hand".

But the core of Jinnah’s charter dealt with communal harmony: "You are free. You are free to go to your mosques or any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state." Fifty years down the road, Pakistan’s leaders seem to have failed on all counts in what Cowasjee calls the "great betrayal". The extent of the betrayal is evident from the fact that a distorted, censored version of the speech was given to Jinnah’s official biographer, Bolitho, by the Pakistan government.

Contrary to Jinnah’s wishes, Islamisation has been shoved down the throats of people who are mostly Muslim anyway. Law and order has always been a weak point with successive administrations—a divide and rule policy, following the great tradition set by the Raj, has always been adhered to. As for bribery and corruption, one of the achievements listed by the present government is that Pakistan’s position on the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International’s list of corrupt countries has come down from second to fifth!

However, Pakistan’s biggest failing is probably its inability to treat its citizens equally, irrespective of "religion, caste or creed". That Jinnah’s vision would find no easy fruition was evident in the early ’50s when anti-Ahmadi riots rocked the country and the army had to be called. But it was during the prime ministership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that the first definitive steps towards Islamisation were taken.

Desperate to consolidate his political standing, Bhutto declared the Ahmadis non-Muslims. Besides, the last constitution of 1973 requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims and take an oath affirming the finality of Prophet Mohammed. In 1977, Bhutto outlawed drinking, gambling and night clubs and declared that within six months Shariat laws would be established and enforced. As a starter, Friday, the traditional Islamic holiday, was declared the weekly off. After more than 20 years, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently, in the teeth of opposition from the religious parties, reverted to Sunday, as the Friday holiday was hurting business in the country internationally.

DURING Zia’s martial law, the Islamisation drive picked up momentum. Jinnah’s "two-nation" theory, negated after the establishment of Bangladesh, was also dropped in favour of a new process of nation-building with Islam as its crux. But this Islamic unity has been extremely tenuous. As Pakistan historian Ayesha Jalal writes: "Islam as a religion has been open to far too many conflicting interpretations to serve as a stable ideological anchor for the state. Pakistan’s sectarian diversities—and not just the major Sunni-Shia divide—make any sort of consensus, not to mention uniformity of opinion, on Islam virtually impossible to achieve."

 For Zia, however, Islamisation was a way of seeking political legitimacy. He introduced compulsory prayers in government offices, ordered a review of textbooks to conform to scriptural teachings, emphasised Pakistan’s ‘religious’ identity and introduced a set of rigid Islamic penal laws. Shariat courts were given the power to decide whether or not the laws of the country were in conformity with the laws of Islam. In the process, gender equality and the status of women were drastically affected.

In December 1984, Zia held a national referendum to determine whether the people supported his programme of Islamisation and subsequently claimed that the vote was a mandate for its continuance. In January 1985, he announced national elections, to be held on a non-party basis, with separate Muslim and non-Muslim electorates, which continues to this day. In his quest for a formal political constituency, Zia supported religious parties. Today, the same right-wing parties are wreaking havoc and offering—with increasing conviction—an alternate Islamic revolution for people fed up with the way democracy has fared after Zia’s death in 1988.

The sectarian violence that is sweeping Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, is not an overnight phenomena. It has been simmering since 1947. Initially Karachi, where a large number of migrants from India settled and prospered, had been the Shia-Sunni battleground. But these pre-’90s Shia-Sunni clashes were tame affairs compared to the present ones in Punjab, where more than 150 people have been killed in ’97 alone.

Pakistan’s attempts at forging a Muslim brotherhood have also suffered with the ethnic clashes involving the Mohajirs that have affected Karachi. MQM chief Altaf Hussain has mobilised Mohajirs by repeatedly emphasising the alienation of the community from the state. For years now the MQM has been involved in an confrontation with the state. It recently changed its name to Muttahida Quami Movement (United National Movement) to clearly show that it is not confined to the Mohajirs.

Nevertheless, analysts say notions of Pakistan being a failed state are a bit extreme. At the same time, there is a remarkable unanimity that the country’s leadership has let down the people and founding fathers. Says Maleeha Lodi, Islamabad editor of The News, Pakistan’s largest English daily, and former Pakistani ambassador to the US: "On the country’s 50th birthday, Pakistanis voice hope and pessimism in equal measure. This ambivalence reflects half a century of political failures, civil and military misrule, institutional decay and missed economic opportunities. Public faith in leaders may be shaken, not the belief in the country’s potential to deliver a better future."

SHAHBAZ Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and brother of prime minister Sharif, too refutes the proposition that Pakistan is a failed state: "Pakistan has achieved a lot in the past 50 years. We have had our ups and downs like any other nation. But we are on track now." But he laments that fundamentalists have damaged the country’s image and points to the sectarian violence as proof.

Analysts are especially emphatic that governmental inadequacies are not synonymous with failure of the state. "The record of the Pakistani people stands out in sharp contrast to the waywar d-ness of the state," opines human rights activist I.A. Rehman.

Veteran politician Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan too refuses to accept the failed state theory: "It is not a failed state. The lust for power of the generals is to blame for whatever crises we are in. In Zia’s time the fundamentalist forces were strengthened and the country was put in the reverse gear." The country has faced huge odds since 1947. The landowning classes have consistently wielded power. From Liaquat Ali PIB Khan, the first prime minister, to the Bhuttos, the powerful feudals have been ruling directly or indirectly. The alternative to the feudals have been the civil and military bureaucracy, both of which do not represent Pakistan’s fledgling middle class.

Interestingly, the PPP initially emerged as a party of the downtrodden as part of Bhutto’s attempt to break the back of the "robber barons", the 22 families said to be controlling the economy at the time. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the ruling party, was initially synonymous with the business and trading community. The irony is that in the 50th year of Pakistan’s existence, the PPP is seen more as a party of the rich and powerful while the PML(N) has become the favourite of the working classes. Mirza Aslam Beg, a former chief of army staff, echoes the claim that politicians are to blame as well: "The Muslim League, after Pakistan’s birth, lost that cohesive and integrative glue as it became a victim of intrigue of power-hungry politicians who manipulated it for the fulfilment of their own personal ends."

As for democratic institutions, the judiciary has been the worst affected over the years. Since its inception, it has been bullied and disfigured beyond recognition. The latest example being Zia who bulldozed laws through the judiciary, discarding any dissenting judges in the process. Yet, nine years after Zia’s death, the judiciary has managed to salvage some of its reputation through much-needed activism. While the Blasphemy Law and the recently introduced Anti Terrorism Law are still on the statute, there are indications that the judiciary can be prodded into removing them, once the process is set in motion. As human rights activist Aziz Siddiqui comments: "The judiciary is now more actively in the news than at any time in the last 50 years. The only credible tease to the swagger of a government pumped up by its big mandate comes from that solitary source."

 Indeed, in its 50th year of existence, Pakistan could be at the crossroads. For one, Sharif has been given the largest mandate in the country’s history. And yet, keeping in mind the low voter turnout in the February elections, Sharif may also be the most unrepresentative of them all. The abysmal turnout is a clear indication of the silent support for right-wing elements: the PPP voters, disgusted with the party, stayed away from polls en masse.

Aware of the pitfalls ahead, the government has been moving with dizzying speed. It managed to annul Article 58-2-B, which empowered the president to sack an elected government. Now, a much more powerful Sharif has managed to take on two holy cows. He has taken the military establishment into confidence and started to make meaningful noises about improved relations with India. But Kashmir continues to be at the core of relations with India and there is no easy solution in sight.

ANOTHER challenge facing the country is to pull itself back from the current economic morass. More than 80 per cent of the budget is consumed by defence spending and debt servicing, leaving precious little for the social and developmental sector. Under pressure from the IMF, the industrialist Sharif has decided to tax the powerful landlords for the first time in 50 years. He is also under pressure from international organisations to hold a census, which has not been done since 1981 on account of provincial divisions.

Whether he will succeed is still unclear, despite all the powers vested in the prime minister. The promulgation of the anti-terrorism law on the eve of the 50th independence anniversary is an indication of the government’s shaky foundation. The promulgation has provoked a massive uproar. The public has termed it the "blackest law of all" and the government’s allies like the MQM have withdrawn support on the bill. An equally daunting task is tackling corruption. It is so deep-rooted that Pakistanis feel there is no solution in sight. Part of the problem has been that the attempts by successive governments to root out corruption as soon as they come to power turn into political vendettas. All four democratically elected governments that have been sacked under Article 58-2-B have been accused of corruption.

The most serious charges have been brought against Benazir Bhutto’s government when it was dismissed last year. And yet, few have been put behind bars, and even fewer convicted. "The problem," says an analyst, "is the partisan and selective efforts made by successive governments." In the final analysis, most Pakistani observers believe that theirs is not a failed state. To put things in perspective, American academic William Richter wrote recently: "Is Pakistan a failed state? Although such a judgment would be unduly harsh, this brief inquiry into the four dimensions of state functioning suggests that ‘successful state’ would also not be an appropriate description. In Pakistan, the question still hangs very much in balance."

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