By Roedad Khan
Like Russians, we Pakistanis remain obsessed by two great questions formulated by 19th-century Russian writers Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Chernyshevsky: who is to blame and what is to be done?
Many nations in the past have attempted to develop democratic institutions, only to lose them when they took their liberties and political institutions for granted, and failed to comprehend the threat posed by a powerful military establishment and corrupt political leaders. Pakistan is a classic example.
As he left the constitutional convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked by an admirer: “Dr Franklin, what have you given us?” Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Not too long ago, we too possessed a great country earned for us by the sweat of the brow and iron will of one person. We have done to Pakistan what Lenin’s successors did to the Soviet Union.
On Oct 7, 1958, democracy was expunged from the politics of Pakistan with scarcely a protest. The result is the mess we are in today. As a direct consequence of military intervention in October 1958, we lost half the country in 1971. A weak political system and corrupt political leaders allowed the Generals to manipulate events and hijack the state.
There are, in my view, two factors that, above all others, have shaped our history during the last 62 years. One is the growing power of the military in running the affairs of state. The other, without doubt, consists in the total failure of the politicians, the intelligentsia, the intellectuals, the civil servants — in fact, the entire civil society — to comprehend the threat posed by a powerful army to the country’s fragile democracy, and to devise ways and means to thwart it. “Military coups,” Alexis de Tocqueville warned more than 200 years ago, “are always to be feared in democracies. They should be reckoned among the most threatening of the perils which face their future existence. Statesmen must never relax their efforts to find a remedy for this evil.” Sadly, the warning went unheeded in newly-independent Pakistan. When our descendants, in a century’s time, come to look at our age, it is these two phenomena that will be held to be the determining factors of our history — the most demanding of explanation and analysis.
“Perhaps no form of government needs great leaders so much as democracy,” said the historian and diplomat Lord Bryce. The leadership Pakistan brought to power in 1947 proved unable to govern a country rent by political, ethnic, economic, and social conflicts. No wonder, today it is a nightmare of despair and despondency, in doubt about its future. The rich are getting richer, while the poor are sinking deeper and deeper into a black hole of abject poverty. The country appears to be adrift, lacking confidence about its future. Disaster and frustration roam the political landscape. Look into the eyes of a Pakistani today and you will see a smouldering rage.
Sixty-two years after independence, are we really free? Are the people masters in their own house? Are our sovereignty and independence untrammelled? On Aug 14, 1947, we thought we had found freedom, but it has turned out to be another kind of slavery. The independence of Pakistan is a myth. Pakistan is no longer a free country. Today it is not just a “rentier state,” not just a client state. It is a state with a government set up by Washington. It is no longer a democratic country. Today we have a disjointed, dysfunctional, lopsided, hybrid, artificial, political system — a non-sovereign rubberstamp parliament, a weak and ineffective prime minister, appointed by a powerful accidental president. Armed American security personnel crisscross our border without let or hindrance. They violate our air space with impunity, bomb our villages and kill innocent men, women and children. Everyday I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in Jinnah’s Pakistan? Where are the voices of public outrage? Where is the leadership willing to stand up and say: Enough! Enough! We have sullied ourselves enough. Why are we so passively mute? How can we be so comatose as a nation when all our political institutions are crumbling before our own eyes?
Many questions come to mind. Why did the army get involved in the politics of Pakistan in the first instance? Why did Ayub Khan stab Pakistan’s fledgling democracy in the back? Why was he allowed to commit the original sin? Worse still, why did everybody acclaim it? There was no breakdown of law and order to justify imposition of martial law. There was also no civil commotion to prevent the judges from attending their courts. The country was abuzz with politics, but that happens in all democracies, especially on the eve of elections.
Why did the superior judiciary, the guardian of the Constitution, the protector of the citizens’ rights, become subservient to the executive and to the philosophy of the party in power? Why did we allow the rule of law to give way to the rule of man? Why did our judges match their constitutional ideas and legal language to the exigencies of current politics? Why did the courts tailor their decisions for reasons of expediency or, at times, for simple survival?
Why did parliament, the pillar of our state, the embodiment of the will of the people, become a rubberstamp? Why did it allow itself to be gagged? Why did it surrender its sovereignty to both military and civilian dictators?
Why did Pakistan become a land of opportunities for corrupt, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians; judges and generals; corrupt and dishonest civil servants; smugglers and tax evaders who have bank accounts, luxurious villas, mansions, and apartments in the West? Why did Pakistan become a nightmare of corruption, crime and despair? Why? Why?
Aug 14 gave independence to Pakistan, but not to Pakistanis. The greatest disappointment of my generation has been its failure to stand up to Generals who have robbed us of everything — our past, our present, our future. Prolonged army rule has reduced us, collectively, to a plantation of slaves. We seem to be helpless in the grip of some all — powerful monster; our limbs paralysed; our minds deadened. Few Pakistanis seem ready to die for anything anymore.
Who has done this to us? There is something pitiable about a people that constantly bemoans its leaders. If they have let us down, it is only because we have allowed them to. With the mess we are in, we look everywhere but within. It is the fault of corrupt politicians. It is Washington’s fault. It is the Pakistan army and power-hungry generals. It is the corrupt bureaucracy. Somebody fix it! What about us?
We have made a mockery of the gift of independence. What gift, shall we, the living, bequeath to the unborn? What Pakistan shall we hand over to the future? Today we feel ourselves unable to look our children in the eye, for the shame of what we did, and didn’t do, during the last 62 years. For the shame of what we allowed to happen.
Today the Supreme Court, the guardian of the Constitution, is the only ray of hope in the darkness that surrounds us. After years of subservience, it is on its feet and holding its head high. Sadly, in spite of a strong and independent judiciary, the present corrupt order may survive because both the presidency and the Parliament are dysfunctional and out of sync with the spirit of the times.
What is to be done? At last, people have found their life mission: fight corrupt, discredited rulers, elected or unelected, when they capture the commanding heights of power. And I believe they have also found the tool to achieve this mammoth task: peaceful streets demonstrations and rallies.
When we organise with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But corrupt leaders who have nothing but contempt for the people and no respect for democracy, freedom or justice have taken it over. It is up to all of us to take it back. And as Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”