Polity Beyond the State in Pakistan | Daanish Mustafa’s Blog

Aug 2013

On this 65th Independence Day, I am going to avoid the standard breast-thumping lament for Pakistan’s failings, or psychedelic nationalist exuberance. Please refer to practically every other write up in any other outlet this Independence Day for those. Besides, to me birthdays are never to be observances of the past, but rather an affirmation of the future. But since the future is built upon the past and the present, it might be a good idea to take stock of the nature of the entities called the Pakistani state and its twin the Indian state, both of which came into being at midnight between August 14th and 15th, 1947. I suspect that might illuminate where we are at present and where might go in the future. Furthermore, as much as the state may insist that it is the container of all the welfare, wealth generation, culture and power that bears upon our everyday lives, it is really the polity (polities?) that gel within the geographical entity that, to my mind, are the more important arbiters of the quality of our lives than the state apparatus alone. I would like to offer a few thoughts and experiences on that as well—later.

Late Dr. Eqbal Ahmed would relate the most interesting story of the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore, the iconic Bengali poet and intellectual, and the Indian nationalists in the 1920s and ‘30s. Robi Thakur—as Tagore was known among his admirers, was deeply hostile towards what he saw as a decidedly western model of nation states, and its underlying nationalist ideologies. In fact, he went on to declare that the unspeakable slaughter of World War I was very much a symptom of a European disease–nationalism. It is then quite an irony that India and then Bangladesh chose Tagore poems as their national anthems.

Indian nationalists, including the Muslims, while aware of his hostility to their agenda, still paid due homage to Tagore as a cultural giant. Tagore was against the British rule not because it was by the white man but rather because it was unjust. He flatly declared that the Indian nationalist project was based upon a politics of difference. Eqbal Ahmed quotes him as saying: “Today you make a distinction between the white man and the brown man. Tomorrow you will make a distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim; the day after you will make a distinction between the North and the South. There is no end to the politics of difference.” He was prophetic, because that is indeed what came to pass. One could add that the day after Pakistan was created, we made a distinction between Muslim and Ahmadi, the day after we drew a line between West Pakistani and Bengali, the day after we drew a wall between Sunni and Shia, and the day after between Barelvi and Deobandi. Shall I go on?

Robi Thakur wanted to see a decentralized India with the British perhaps as part of its future on an equal footing with its other inhabitants. He wished for an India whose ethnic and linguistic diversity was reflected in the flexibility and multiplicity of its political structures and institutions, with an underlying universal principle of social justice. Robi Thakur failed, as did another messenger of equality through diversity, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—but that is another story. Instead victory belonged to the centralized Nehruvian state model, of which India and Pakistan were the first specimens followed by the entire post-colonial world. There is plenty of blame to go around for what went wrong in Pakistan and the rest of the post-colonial world. But make no mistake, the structural imperative of the nation state system perhaps accounts for more of the troubles that we see in Pakistan and the rest of the world today than anything that General Zia’s evil could conjure up.

So what type of polity has come to be despite the structural imperative of the Pakistani state? Naturally, it is a polity that has deep fissures along multiple lines—no surprises there, and again there is plenty on that that one can read 365 days in Pakistan. Despite all the failings I see a few remarkably positive trends in this polity that I would like to share with the reader.

There is a saying that nothing can happen in Pakistan without sifarish (nepotism). This is almost an article of faith, especially among the young people, and like many of the other articles of their young faiths, it is false. Because of my family’s engagement with the education sector, I have had the honor to observe the educational trajectory of close to 100 students from very humble backgrounds, e.g., sons and daughters of fruit sellers, stone masons, machinists, laborers, and so on. Upon completion of their studies all have moved on to successful careers in business, industry and journalism. All of them fervently believed as youngsters that their education was going to count for nothing, as they did not have sifarish for their practical lives. All of them got excellent jobs out of school without sifarish and are well ahead in their fields, without sifarish. Some of them are even amazed at their own accomplishments. All I tell them is that I told you so. The Pakistani polity allows remarkable social mobility. Government, NGO, and corporate offices are full of sons and daughters of farmers’, fruit sellers’ and clerks’ children, whose parents could only dream of what their children have become. There is vertical mobility in Pakistan–if there were not the state could not possibly have persisted in the shape that it has.

Our economy may not be doing as well as the neighboring countries, but it still has a respectable 3 to 5 percent growth rate, which is better than most other countries of the world. We have a less globalized economy, because of obvious reasons, but our domestic oriented economy is resilient against international shocks of the kind experienced internationally since 2007. We may not have foreign direct investment, but I find it difficult to get emotional about how we are not exploited by fat cat international capitalists.

We do, and should, envy the stable democratic set-up next door. But we should not envy the Indian middle classes’ wholesale acceptance of the Indian state’s nationalist narrative. In Pakistan, we have many, even today, asking foundational questions about the nature of the state, its foreign policy priorities and its so-called establishment’s misbehavior. That level of open debate, as exemplified by our free media, can only be healthy for a polity. Where rabid nationalists see signs of disunity, I see wonderful diversity and debate.

Four unremarkable but iconic people exemplify the strengths that personify many Pakistanis. As a teenager, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to join the army. This delusion persisted even when I had gone to the United States to do my undergraduate degree. My father used to keep company with certain Brig. M. Akbar Khan, back in the day. In the army, Brig. Akbar had a reputation for thorough professionalism and many thought that he would have been the army chief instead of Zia-ul-Haq, had he not had to leave the army because of health problems. During a routine social call my father mentioned to him that his son–me–wanted to join the army. Without missing a moment he immediately retorted, “that’s good, at least then the army will have an educated man in its ranks.” He was the first person, ever, who instead of pointing out all the (largely correct) reasons the army was not for me, was more focused on how somebody like me might benefit the institution that he loved. It is people like Brig. Akbar Khan, with their devotion to their institution that are the true pride of the military and the country–and not BMW driving lunatics like Hamid Gul.

During my dissertation research in Khanewal district, I had the honor of meeting a local level politico of Darkhana Union Council, Mahr Nousherwan. He had no formal education, but he was a guardian angel to his area. I had occasion to witness many supplicants approaching big landowners for assorted personal problems related to land, family and police-related problems. Mahr Nousherwan always approached the big landowners on behalf of his people to request collective benefits, such as passenger train stops at the local station, water schemes and so on. Despite his illiteracy he stood tall and dealt with the biggest politician as an equal and with dignity. People knew he was incorruptible–even the most corrupt politician and civil servants around.

During my research in Balochistan I had the privilege of interacting with Amanullah, the village head of Karez Yakub, district Muslim Bagh. During my research my team was chased out of 10 villages by the local Taliban, because they thought my funding agency, National Geographic Society, was spreading immorality! Amanullah was the man who ran a co-ed primary school in his village despite the local Taliban objections. He even allowed two girls to attend middle school in the village with boys, against Taliban’s wishes. He was an articulate man who had the most sophisticated analysis of governance failures in Balochistan and Pakistan–an analysis that would put any urban intellectual to shame. He is an intellectual and an activist, who stands like a rock between his village and the forces of obscurantism in Balochistan.

Last, but not least, my 7-9th grade geography teacher Ms. Saleema Aziz. I have a Ph.D. in geography because she made me fall in love with the subject. Her command of the subject and her indulgence in winning over a precocious teenager like myself had a life long impression on your scribe. She exemplifies for me the type of teacher and mentor one should be. I, of course, don’t have the patience or the courage to take on teenagers, but mentoring 20-30 something adults is my approximation of trying to imitate her.

People like Brig. Akbar, Mahr Nausherwan, Amanullah and Saleema Aziz are the real guardian angels of this country. As long as they are there, we can sleep well, confident in the knowledge that borders will be defended, roads will be built, boys and girls will get an education, and the Taliban will loose.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.

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