By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Anniversaries serve a purpose – they remind of what was. We Pakistanis have just marked Independence day arrived at 73 years ago. And then, almost exactly a fortnight later, in accordance with the Hijri calendar, the whole Muslim world as Muharram commences, honours—as it has through centuries—with the profoundest reverence the martyrs of Karbala: Despite their lineage they were martyred by people who ‘shared’ their faith, but betrayed it and conflicted for temporal gain in personal ambition to wrest political power. What gives an otherwise common enough conflict sublimity is the martyrs: their personal identities and steadfastness to the right course. Resonating along with commemoration of their historic courageous stand is the love all Muslims feel for ‘Al-i-Rasool right across and through the bitter sectarian divide(s) the aggressors at Karbala unwittingly originated . . .  And so back to Pakistan at 73 and its declared Muslim identity: Divided, exclusive, inclusive, mangled, antagonistic, devout, fanatical, misunderstood, exploitative, exploited . . .  Could we dare this August 14 look into the mirror without flinching?

Only if we set aside honesty and willingly connive at fooling ourselves and ignoring the sad reality that we have made a poor job of self-reliance as well as political ethicality.

What did a cursory glance at the newspapers tell us the next day? Among other titbits, that in Karachi more than a score of people had been injured in jubilatory aerial firing. Perhaps that is a moment of truth – our rejoicing is reckless of the cost to others.  We find this expression of primitive, savage gloating at success woven into the country’s largest city; evident in the country’s most ‘posh’ and privileged circles — one cannot say ‘educated’. TV progressed to providing hepped-up schmaltzy choreographed snippy variations of the national anthem, conferring on it the dignity of pop. Another familiar way of exhibiting patriotic rejoicement was the hoisting of outsized flags on rooftops and painting them onto youthful faces.

Of course we are all entitled to fun and high spirits; but there is cause for concern when the binding national underpinning after 73 years remains flimsy, while salutary self-searching is buried under tinsel.

In 2020, August 14 dawned in a country where an incumbent PTI leadership is absorbed in self-congratulation and denigration of ‘the other’ as an end in itself. Its most constructive policy hitherto is building castles in the air. In a Pakistan which was born amid Indian hostility and where the animus has been a constant, we face an India more menacing than ever. With what? More battles where our soldiers die and ‘luckier’ ones live to fight another day? Never has there been greater need to formulate cohesive national internal and external policy and clarify intent and direction of government with the citizens’ representatives consensually. But despite its assumption of the responsibilities of federal administration and coordination, the politics of the street and inflammatory insulting diatribes (if not exhortations of downright civic unrest) continue to be fostered by the PTI leadership to democratically empowered provincial governments formed by any other party. 

In 2020, August 14 dawned in country where leadership is busy saying its health policy has ‘defeated’ Covid 19 and trail-blazed a path for tackling it to the rest of the world. Er,um, yes. What matter if a once receding Polio is on the rise. The PTI extols its promotion of digitilization. Meanwhile, its amorphous education policy escapes systematic public criticism simply because it is a patchwork of inconsistencies. Prioritizing computer literacy in a yet largely illiterate population may not prove quite the kind of unmixed blessing it is touted to be: Especially when media critiques and street dissent is allowable where the politically empowered find it agreeable but not where it disconcerts them and could be nationally ameliorative. In such an ambience it is hard to close our eyes to the prospect of a coercive one-party polity. Except that we are too populous and politically conscious to accept that — as the emergence of Bangladesh should have taught both civil and military leadership. But apparently has not.

There are many reasons to worry; but among the most pressing is the federal government’s games with ethnic nationalism and the ham-fisted official response to political demands and perceived grievances in Balochistan and Sindh. In a marked contrast, the PTI is weak-kneed in its responses to religious zealotry and sectarianism in urban belts of Punjab and can resort to fanaticism-reliant tactics for political leverage in parliamentary legislation. Surely this was not the kind of blueprint for a free Muslim country that the architects of Pakistan had in mind – or its population commissioned. Religious coercion and political manipulation is most noxious when it emanates from co-religionists. And as religious sentiment is very strong in the multitude and pluralities of citizens who own this country there is all the more reason not to venture exploiting it.

Our upcoming September 5-6 anniversary is Defence of Pakistan day or is it now labelled Armed Forces day? Either way, it is a good time for the establishment all on the same page to check their reprint’s proofs with the original Ms.                          (text 852 words)