Future of Pakistan Depends on How it Deals With Identity, Image and Dissent

Future of Pakistan Depends on How it Deals With Identity, Image and Dissent

Pakistan has a long history of hounding the dissenters. The country's military establishment -and occasionally the civilian one too- has stigmatized, ostracized and persecuted those who differed with whatever was considered the state-sponsored gospel truth at the time. Pashtun and Baloch nationalist leaders like Ghaffar Khan and Ghaus Bux Bizenjo were smeared as traitors and arrested within a year of the country's independence. Regrettably, even Ms. Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the country's founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was not spared by Pakistan's first military dictator Field Marshal Ayub Khan when she opposed him in a presidential election; he denigrated not just her politics and but also her character. Pakistan's state apparatus and its partisans have continued since to torment, vilify, and even worse, attack and physically eliminate the dissident voices.

This persecution is not random; there is a method to this madness.

The military establishment had anointed itself the guardian of not just the physical frontiers of Pakistan but also of the 'ideological frontiers' and it abhors that anyone would challenge it. After the independence from the British and, partition from India, in 1947 Pakistan faced a crisis of national identity. Two geographical wings with highly diverse ethnic and linguistic populations with strong centrifugal political campaigns in three out of the then five federating units alarmed the new ruling elite. Like the Soviet Union, this multi-ethnic state and its junta desperately needed fortifying cement that would not just hold the various ethno-national entities in the two wings together but also legitimize and consolidate the newly ascendant military's controlling position. After the partition of India, Pakistan inherited roughly one-third of its military, about three-quarters of which was of Punjabi origin. As the largest organized entity in the new country, the military not only grabbed power in 1958 but also clearly enunciated its vision for the new state based on "Islamic ideology".

While the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had an ostensibly working ideology that was to become the supra-ethnic gel, the Pakistani brass had to cook one up. The army made a conscious decision to transform Pakistan into an ideological state as against a pluralist nation-state championed by politicians like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, whom the military had toppled and disparaged. Field Marshal Ayub Khan codified, in writing that the supra-ethnic Pakistani identity was to be Islamic in ideology and anti-India in military orientation, while its economic model would be a quasi-market economy literally financed by the US and western aid. To peddle its version of nation-building without any opposition, the military regime first censored newspapers but when that failed, the country's largest leftist publishing group Progressive Papers Limited was taken over at gunpoint. The junta actively enlisted fundamentalist clergy, which provided the praetorian state with a menacing tool to agitate against the liberal media and politicians. Curbs on freedom of expression were thus applied from the top and as well as from the street via the clergy-orchestrated agitation. This model of narrative management and control has continued since the Ayub Khan regime, with each successive military ruler tweaking it to his needs and even when military has ruled from behind the scenes. While Pakistan has had an interrupted democratic streak since 2008 - the longest in the country's 70-year history- the military still maintains a robust tutelary role over the civilian dispensation and exerts a chokehold over the so-called national narrative through panoply of direct and indirect methods.

The military is not concerned with the disastrous blowback of its policy of appeasing and nurturing religious zealots and jihadists but takes umbrage at the free and progressive thinkers when they critique it because in its view they tarnish its image. Never mind that in its crucible the military has actively fostered a Sunni Muslim, Punjabi male identity for Pakistan at the expense of the country's assorted minorities and ethno-national groups, it does not want to be seen doing that and hence the military's dislike for dissent. Over the past several years the space for nonconformists and progressive voices in Pakistan has shrunk considerably. The military, which is the country's largest business enterprise, has a vested interest in silencing the critical opinion. It benefits immensely from fomenting discord with Pakistan's neighbors as that helps it not only retain its preeminent position as the arbiter of national interest and security but a direct beneficiary of the domestic defense budget allocations and foreign military aid. The national security state façade is built at the expense of economic growth and diverts resources from health, education and social welfare sectors and tramples upon civil liberties and provincial autonomy; those questioning it draw the military's wrath. But it has to be questioned for it is as untenable as it is reckless.

It is in this backdrop that over 70 prominent liberal, progressive and nationalist intellectuals, human rights and social media activists, and public figures from Pakistan assembled last week in London for a conference on 'The Future of Pakistan' organized under the banner of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH). I had the honor of cohosting the event along with the former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Professor Husain Haqqani The conference had to be arranged away from Pakistan due to potential physical danger to its participants. While it was heartening to hear out such diverse array of opinions it was also disconcerting to gather that unless a course correction takes place, and soon, the prognosis remains precarious. The consensus opinion among the participants, formulated and read out as the forum's concluding declaration, was that Pakistan risks "global isolation because of widespread obscurantism, growing intolerance, lack of rule of law, along with official support for extremism and general disregard for human rights". Unless the Pakistani state changes its tack, the country will continue to lag behind on not just development indices but also reel under jihadism and insecurity. The future of Pakistan depends upon how it deals with its identity, image, and the dissenters who wish to contribute to improving it.

(Dr. Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist; follow him on Twitter @mazdaki)