Nothing strengthens Pakistan more than democracy and nothing weakens it quite like dictatorship
Pakistan has a multitude of problems — this is well known — including the Taliban, religious extremism, violence against women and official religious discrimination. Yet there is another Pakistan too, a Pakistan of positives, that exists despite its problems. This other Pakistan is often unfairly dismissed as a liberal bubble but the foot fall at the Lahore Literary Festival, despite a direct threat from the Taliban, should give anyone pause. To emphasise only the negative, however, is first and foremost a native Pakistani talent from which Pakistan’s foreign observers take cue. This is not to say that Pakistan does not have serious problems but it should not just be defined by those problems.
There are those who have always promoted the idea of state collapse internationally. I was first informed of the imminent demise of the Pakistani state in 1999 on a website that purported to promote India-Pakistan understanding. Bruised and bloodied, Pakistan is still here and it is not going to go anywhere. Realising this, those who would like it to disappear into thin air tend to take solace in Pakistan’s misery. They paint a picture of a country that is hopeless, underdeveloped and without any future, a failed state or even an irrelevant state. Yet visiting Pakistan often disabuses the visitor of their odd pre-conceived notions. Consider the case of our friends from across the border. The number of articles one reads on a regular basis of the shocked Indians who are surprised to see that Pakistan is not exactly the backward badland of skullcaps and burkas that they are willing to imagine as if it were just a larger version of the Muslim slums of Delhi instead of an independent country.
Pakistan is a country of 180 million people with a large middle class, a vibrant media and a growing corporate culture. It also has a strong culture of dissent, which is visible and strong and should not be feared by the powers that be. This brings me to the main point of this article: Pakistan’s national security is not linked to the fear of dissent. Indeed, dissent is nothing to be fearful about but, rather, lends vibrancy to Pakistani society and politics. The only thing that threatens Pakistan’s national security is this penchant for imposing a quasi-authoritarian state on a diverse people. Instead, if Pakistan’s federal structure is worked honestly and democracy is given a chance, there is no power on earth that can undo the country. It would be this attitude and antipathy towards federalism and representative rule that led to the breakup of the country in 1971. Shaikh Mujeebur Rahman, all evidence suggests, was ready to settle for a more honest interpretation of the Lahore Resolution. It was the state that failed to accommodate the genuine concerns of patriots driven away to separatism. We love to call Pakistan a national security state but I have always felt that it is more a national insecurity state and needlessly so. The paradigm shift has to be that national security be linked directly to the idea of democracy. Nothing strengthens Pakistan more than democracy and nothing weakens it quite like dictatorship. History bears witness to this fact. After every stint of direct military rule, Pakistan has emerged weaker and bruised. Democracy on the other hand has never weakened Pakistan contrary to the popular narrative in the middle classe.
In Pakistan we have a great country, which has the potential of becoming a great nation. It has everything — diversity, pluralism, a mosaic of cultures, more than 10 languages and history dating back 6,000 years — except that we have always viewed these great gifts with suspicion. Instead of appreciating the multiple identities that inform Pakistanis and utilising them in our nation-building project, we have wedded ourselves exclusively to Indo-Muslim nationalism and identity. Indo-Muslim nationalism and identity no doubt was a major contributor to the making of Pakistan but Pakistani identity cannot be limited to that identity alone. Additional factors that must inform a more inclusive Pakistani identity should include our regional cultures, languages and, most importantly, the religious cultures of the non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan. We must embrace our history wholly and not in part. Taxila and Takhtbai should be as intrinsic to Pakistani identity as the fabulous Mughal architecture is. Local syncretic religious traditions must be protected and safeguarded against the Saudi-Wahhabi onslaught that started in the 1970s. This idea of ethereal rootedness should permeate all levels of the state. The state must re-orient itself to its actual geographical and cultural coordinates.
However, the foremost message that must come from the intelligentsia of the country should be hope and courage. We the people have lived in this land since time immemorial and we are not going to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by either those barbarians out to destroy us through bombs and guns or those who wish us ill and revel in our misery. Pakistan will rise. It is not a question of if but when. Let us do our part to make sure it happens sooner rather than later.