Pakistan: Death of a Dream and an Ideal

Pakistan turns 63 this month but it would be difficult to say a great deal positive about its style of governance or development in all these years. True, its birth was marred by great suffering and bloodshed, not in a formal war but during the migration of millions of people that were uprooted from their homes in India in August 1947. Since independence, far from matching its traditional enemy India’s economic progress, Pakistan has lagged behind even those countries –” South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, etc –” that gained independence much later. Perhaps the only area where it can rightly take some pride is in the nuclear field, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, who has since been vilified and accused of all manner of sins, under pressure from Pakistan’s godfather, Uncle Sam. And Pakistan’s nuclear achievements are being undermined by paid agents of the US masquerading as academics and professors in Pakistani universities.

So what exactly went wrong in Pakistan despite the enormous sacrifices but also great hopes that were aroused immediately at its birth? Initially the people were very enthusiastic in giving a helping hand. There was immense optimism and determination to get things right and get the new country on its feet as quickly as possible. No doubt, the early days were extremely difficult and had it not been for people’s support and enthusiasm the country may not have survived but its current plight leaves little room for optimism. It is not only an economic basketcase, its ruling elites are thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. The president, Asif Ali Zardari, a street urchin, is an indicted thief and criminal. It is a disgrace that a person like him should be ensconced in the presidency but perhaps this is reflective of the sad state of affairs in Pakistan.

Before we look at some statistics that show the grim reality facing the people, it would be worthwhile to consider how the “Pakistan project” was derailed at its inception. Pakistan was created in the name of Islam; there is no other rationale for its existence. Take away Islam and the entire argument for Pakistan’s existence crumbles yet the ruling elites are busy obliterating Islam from every facet of life. The Muslim masses had supported the idea of an Islamic State modeled on the Khilafah with social, economic and political justice for all; the elites simply wanted a nation-state in which they would not have to compete with the more wily Hindus had they remained part of India. Besides, most of the feudal lords that jumped on the Pakistan bandwagon did so out of opportunism rather than any faith or conviction in the Pakistan ideal. When Pakistan’s creation became certain, they joined the movement they had hitherto shunned with disdain. Besides, these feudal lords were the off-springs of people that had betrayed the Muslims by becoming willing tools of the British colonialists. Their sole mission in life was and remains personal interest; morals and decency have no place in their thought or lexicon.

This explains the vast chasm that exists between the thinking of the elites and the common man in the street or village. The vast majority of Pakistan’s people are simple, honest, decent and hardworking. These are values they have imbibed from the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the noble Messenger (pbuh). Unlike the elites, there is little artificiality about them; they would like to see Islamic values implemented in society but they do not know how. Even the so-called religious leaders have let them down badly. The elites, on the other hand, have tried but failed to impose even the artificial nationalism they are so fond of talking about, in the country. Pakistan is not one society; it is many societies living in a vast chaotic land whose borders were arbitrarily drawn up by the departing British colonialists. The tiny parasitical ruling class sits atop a vast body of impoverished mass of people that struggle to make ends meet.

There is supposed to be a social contract between the state and its people. It rests on certain fundamental principles. People pledge allegiance to the state and respect its laws while the rulers, controlling the state’s resources, are required to meet the social, economic and political needs of the people. The state must also provide a reasonable level of security. In Pakistan, none of these needs is met. There is total lawlessness that has escalated further as a result of US policies and the so-called war on terror. The police and other security agencies provide no protection to the people; instead, they often brutalize them. The sole function of these agencies appears to be to protect the elites. For instance, in the unlikely event of Zardari venturing out of the heavily guarded presidential bubble, all traffic is blocked for several miles. Streets are emptied of people for the ‘people’s president.’ Multiple convoys of identical bullet-proof cars leave the presidential compound simultaneously to confuse any would-be assassins from targeting the petty man.

This would be comic but for the fact that such disruptions have become far too frequent. Every minister and high official demands –” and gets –” elaborate protocol. One upmanship is the name of the game. Government officials of all stripes are only interested in stealing whatever they can from the treasury as well as the people. Most politicians are either feudal lords or industrial barons; few, if any pay taxes. Neither Zardari nor his prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gailani, have responded to queries about what amount, if any, have they paid in taxes. A spokesman for opposition leader Nawaz Sharif said he had been out of the country for the last three years and in any case, he had disbursed all his assets among relatives, in explaining why Sharif had paid no taxes. Jahangir Tareen, a parliamentarian and businessman, who declared his assets and paid his taxes in full, has been trying to introduce a bill in parliament to get other members to declare their assets, but with little success.

Taxes are collected from people on fixed income: office employees, teachers, clerks etc. Less than 2% of Pakistanis pay any income tax. Revenues come primarily from skyrocketing prices of items of daily need, value added tax on commodities that affects the poor the hardest, and foreign aid. In November 2008, Pakistan was forced to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $7.6 billion bailout package; later it was increased to $10.66 billion to avoid defaulting on interest it had to pay on external debt that has now mushroomed to $55 billion. IMF loans always come with stringent conditions: cutting the fiscal deficit by removing food and fuel subsidies, imposing VAT and raising electricity tariffs. All these affect the man in the street, not the elites. The elites’ skewed priorities can be gleaned from the June 5 budget that slashed development funding from the original Rs. 446 billion ($5.3 billion) to Rs. 250 billion ($2.8 billion) while raised defence spending by 17%. Debt servicing and security-related spending will go up to Rs.1.1 trillion ($13.1 billion) in the next fiscal year.

For ordinary people, life has become a never-ending misery. Consider this. Electricity and water are shut off in the scorching summer heat for at least 12 hours a day; traffic has become extremely chaotic and prices of all commodities have skyrocketed. Nearly half the population faces food insecurity that has increased because of the “war on terror” and its fallout on the economy and development. According to a June 2 report by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, food insecurity affects 48.6% of the people in varying degrees; 80 of the 131 districts (61 per cent) are food insecure. Of these, 45 districts (34%) are extremely food insecure, up from 38 in 2003.

Grinding poverty has led to an alarming increase in the number of suicides; this is considered haram (forbidden) in Islam but it reflects the desperation of the poor. News reports say 180 people committed suicide in 2009. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are far more people committing suicide than are reported in newspapers which in any case tuck them in the inside pages in one or two lines. A particularly harrowing story may occasionally make it to the front pages. This was the case of a poor rickshaw driver in Lahore, Akbar, who poisoned three of his six daughters before taking the potion himself leaving a grieving wife with three other young daughters, one of them physically handicapped.

The Punjab government has now provided a stipend to the bereaved family only because the case got extensive media coverage, but not before one parliamentarian said suicides were the “Will of God”. Pakistan’s Information Minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, advised the poor to hand their children over to children’s homes, if they could not feed them. He stopped short of saying they should not have so many children, which is really what he meant. This is still less offensive than what happened two years ago. The brother of a provincial minister in Baluchistan buried three women alive after accusing them of having an illicit affair. No proof beyond the accusation was offered. This was justified in the country’s National Assembly and proclaimed as the “right thing” to do! How one longs for imposing the death penalty by stoning for adulterers in Pakistan; few Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) would escape punishment, starting with Asif Ali Zardari who is a well-known philanderer and indulged in such behaviour even while his wife, Benazir Bhutto was alive.

This is one part of the problem. An equally serious problem is the attitude of entitlement. Not only ministers and generals but also MNAs and their children think they own the country and are entitled to privileged treatment. An incident that occurred in the Defence Housing Society in Karachi on June 6 is reflective of this mindset. Syed Ataur Rehman, a retired Air Vice Marshal, was driving with his son when a huge Land Rover/Land Ranger occupying the entire road came from the opposite direction. The air vice marshal was forced to take evasive action otherwise his car would have been crushed. Upset at such behaviour, he shouted at the driver of the Land Rover to drive carefully. Instead of apologizing for such inconsiderate behaviour, the driver of the Land Rover, a youth of about 18, reversed his vehicle and jumping out of it together with two heavily armed bodyguards, started to attack the air vice marshal and his son. Soon, a police van also arrived and they too started to abuse and beat up the air vice marshal before driving away. The air vice marshal was able to note the license plate number of the vehicle; it was registered not in Pakistan but in Abu Dhabi: No. 80587. It also had an MNA plate on it.

The badly shaken air vice marshal reported the matter to the police as well as to the air force. The vehicle was traced to one Amir Magsi, MNA from Larkhana, the same constituency as that of Benazir Bhutto and Zardari. Under pressure from the military and air force, Amir Magsi offered an apology to the air vice marshal who let the matter drop because, as he put it, one of his brothers is governor of Baluchistan, others are MNAs and MPAs. Clearly, the Magsis are a powerful feudal family and few people would like to cross their path. What entitles MNAs and their sons/ daughters to behave in such manner? If they can attack a retired senior air force officer, what chance do ordinary people have in seeking redress for gross injustices? Many of these feudal lords, including the Bhuttos, run private jails on their vast estates. Benazir-doting western journalists please note.

It is such behaviour that has contributed to the mushrooming of militant groups in the country. True, American presence and brutality have also added to the problem but one can see where the country is heading. It is certainly not heading in the right direction and there appear few if any prospects of things getting right any time soon. In a recent conversation with this writer, a senior member of Nawaz Sharif’s party said “Mian Sahib wants to prevent a revolution from taking place in Pakistan.” It is not surprising to hear such talk: “Mian Sahib” is part of the problem; if he really cared for the people of Pakistan, he would be leading them in the almost certain-to-erupt revolution that is brewing in Pakistan. The only uncertainty is: how bloody it will be and whether there is a sincere leader who can lead people in the right direction.

Grinding poverty, gross injustices, the rapacious lifestyle of the elites protected in their air-conditioned bubbles by huge phalanx of bodyguards and the frightening influence of America in every facet of life are driving the country to the brink. Few would lament the demise of the current corrupt system. What will replace it is something nobody has given much thought to. This is Pakistan’s real tragedy.