Pakistan’s story is like an unending tragedy in which there are no heroes, only villains. Each tries to outdo the other in how much evil he can perpetrate. It would be worthwhile to identify the villains, both institutional and individual. At the institutional level there are the feudal lords that control vast land holdings that were granted to their ancestors by the British colonialists. This was a reward for betraying fellow Muslims as British colonialism started to penetrate India, which was ruled by Muslims at the time. True, Muslim rulers were only nominally committed to Islam but when the British displaced them, the major impact was felt primarily by the Muslims. It is the children and grandchildren of those “Muslim” traitors that still dominate the political landscape in Pakistan. Since treachery against their own people runs in their blood, today they serve their American masters, who have since replaced the British. Through cross-fertilization, the feudals have also contaminated other segments of society to adopt the same slavish mentality.
The feudal lords, however, are outmatched and outgunned by the military officer class that serves as the real masters of Pakistan, at least in the domestic arena. As an institution, the military is disciplined and well organized with a hierarchy of command. It usurps vast resources and given its power, it is also able to protect itself against other predators. Ultimately, the military too is subservient to the Americans because it knows that only the US can provide the kind of largesse that will satiate its ever expanding appetite. What price the Americans exact for such handouts depends on each side’s negotiating skills but it is common experience, as Thucydides observed: “The strong do as they wish, the weak suffer as they must.”
The Americans have always exacted a far higher price for their handouts than the Pakistanis have been able to extract for their services and subservience. True, the giver’s hand is always higher but the recipient need not stoop so low as to abandon all shred of dignity. Regrettably, the Americans have been able to get away, literally, with murder in Pakistan because they are able to buy off a few individuals in key posts that are willing to sacrifice the larger interests of the country for personal gain.
The third group is that of the bureaucrats. They consider themselves not only superior to the masses whom they call illiterate and backward, but also superior to the feudal lords that are in any case barely literate. The bureaucrats are better educated than military officers because the qualifications required to join the military are little more than a high school diploma. Thus, in a technical sense, the bureaucrats can be considered highly educated according to Pakistani standards because the minimum requirement for joining the civil service is a university degree. The bureaucracy in Pakistan has also acquired all the mannerisms of the British with snobbery and intrigue as essential features of their life.
In the last three decades or so, a fourth category of people has emerged: the industrial class. This class of people has acquired wealth as a result of investment in industry with money borrowed from banks that they never pay back. Also generous tax breaks and incentives to export goods have added to their wealth. In fact, there is no culture of paying tax in Pakistan. The feudal lords use the wealth from agricultural produce to play politics –” essentially to buy votes to get into parliament. Once there, they make sure no laws are passed that would require them to pay taxes. The tax base in Pakistan is extremely narrow; only salaried employees –” in government and businesses –” bear the tax burden. Of the 180 million people, less than 2 million pay taxes in Pakistan. Naturally this is not enough to sustain the economy that must therefore rely on massive infusions of foreign aid. This comes in the form of loans as well as remittances from expatriate Pakistanis in the Muslim East, Europe and North America. In fact, remittances from expatriate Pakistanis have become the largest source of income for Pakistan, far outstripping the foreign aid it gets, which usually comes with strings attached.
Below these parasitical classes exist the vast body of Pakistani masses whose life is a perpetual struggle and grind. For them, the government exists only for creating hurdles in their way. The daily routine of an average Pakistani consists of prolonged blackouts (electricity cut off), sometime lasting for up to 14 hours in a 24-hour cycle and no gas that is used for heating as well as cooking. Often, gas becomes available only after midnight for two hours. People are thus forced to cook during those hours. Water is similarly in short supply and whenever available, is generally contaminated leading to water-borne diseases. The healthcare system is virtually non-existent. Medicines are adulterated. Recently, a pharmaceutical factory was shut down because it was producing sub-standard tablets mixed with substances that caused more harm than good.
Barring a few private hospitals –” the Agha Khan Hospital in Karachi, Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in Lahore set up by Imran Khan, and one or two others around the country –” the vast majority of government hospitals in Pakistan are in bad shape. Medicines are often unavailable. People have to bring their own linen and medicines if someone in their family needs hospitalization. The same applies to food. The attitude of hospital staff is rude and patients as well as their relatives are mistreated and insulted. Often, people cannot get hospital beds because of extreme shortage. They are thus forced to go to private hospitals provided they can afford the costs.
Prices of all essential goods –” flour, meat, sugar, cooking oil and vegetables, for instance –” have skyrocketed. Most people in Pakistan eat meat only once a year, at the time of Eid al-Adha when some pious, God-fearing individuals may offer them some sacrificial meat. Amid this grinding poverty, there are other people that live a lifestyle that would be the envy of most people in the west. This can be gleaned from the overcrowding in restaurants in major cities where it is difficult to find space.
It is this vast chasm that is eating away into the very fabric of Pakistani society. While the masses suffer, what do the elites do? They are busy fighting each other over who said what, did what or stole how much from the national treasury. For the overwhelming majority, the government exists only in name and for creating problems for them. The government is not there to solve their problems, neither of security and safety, nor for providing any services. Not surprisingly, almost every Pakistani wants to flee the country if the opportunity arises.
Currently, the military is locked in a battle with the civilian government that is being waged in the Supreme Court. The army accuses the civilians of colluding with the Americans to undermine the military. This is certainly true. The civilian government has completely sold out to the Americans. The military, too, is not without fault. While it has wrapped itself in the mantle of patriotism, it is equally willing to strike a deal with Uncle Sam if its interests are served. Thus, the military –” or more accurately, the army top brass –” is quite willing to turn a blind eye to American drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan as long as their privileges remain untouched. Over the last decade, the Americans have killed more than 30,000 Pakistanis, the overwhelming majority being innocent civilians.
The military has also leased bases to the Americans from where their aircraft fly to attack Pakistani civilians as well as use these bases for spying purposes. This is done both inside Pakistan as well as against neighboring countries. In December the military demanded that the Americans vacate the Shamsi Air Base, which was being used for drone operations, but it did not ask the Americans to vacate the more important Jacobabad airbase. One wonders why? In any case, the Americans have resumed drone attacks in Pakistan after a hiatus of a few weeks following their November 26 attack on two Pakistani border posts in which 24 soldiers were killed. This was a deliberate attack that lasted more than two hours.
While the political theatre plays out in the Supreme Court, election fever has gripped Pakistan. The political fortunes of Imran Khan, the cricket star turned politician have skyrocketed with the result that every opportunistic politician has joined the herd to become a member of his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaaf (PTI) Party. These opportunists, with no ideological commitment, always want to be on the winning side. They believe Imran Khan has the military’s blessings and is therefore destined to become the next prime minister.
Whether this will materialize is difficult to predict. The only certainty is that there will be little relief for the suffering and oppressed masses of Pakistan regardless of who is in power.