Taking stock

Print edition : September 06, 1997

While celebrating the anniversary of the birth of their nation, Pakistanis pondered over its failings on the economic and social fronts.

THE 50th anniversary of Pakistan's birth as a nation gave cause for joyous celebration as well as intense introspection. The celebrations were occasioned by the very fact of the country's survival despite serious challenges to its democratic institutions; the introspection was prompted by its many obvious failings on the economic and social fronts.

Writing in the newspaper Dawn on August 23, former Information Secretary Husain Haqqani dwelt at length on Pakistan's "inadequacies or follies" and offered a "realistic evaluation" of why, in comparison with India, Pakistan is viewed less positively by the rest of the world. Noting that for most of its existence as an independent state, Pakistan had been ruled by the military "or by authoritarian civilians", he said there had been "a tendency to suppress dissent, creating a large body of disgruntled citizens."

Only a handful of civilians, wrote Haqqani, have a sense of belonging. "Under such circumstances, it is natural that the world sees us as intolerant. Dictatorship, religious fanaticism, political repression and violence have been associated with Pakistan's name in the eyes of many outsiders," he added.

Such sobering thoughts, however, did not in any way dampen the celebrations as thousands of people across the country took to the streets waving national flags. Even in Islamabad, which is otherwise considered dull, houses, shops, markets and government buildings were decorated with lights. The official celebrations were a trifle disorganised, but the spontaneity of the people's celebrations more than made up for these. If anyone did give thought to the fact that for 25 of these 50 years the nation had been under military rule and for the rest under the watchful eyes of the military, they perhaps also felt that despite the trials and tribulations of half a century, there was a lot to be thankful for.

SOME of the tensions and last-minute changes associated with the official celebrations showed up the pulls and pressures at work. A special session of Parliament was convened, but was cancelled because - according to newspaper reports - Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif did not want to provide President Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari a platform to criticise his Government.

Front-page advertisements in national dailies initially announced that the Prime Minister would address three functions: at the Parliament complex in Islamabad, in Lahore and at Mohammed Ali Jinnah's mazaar in Karachi. The schedule was soon amended, and it was subsequently announced that both the President and the Prime Minister would lay wreaths at Jinnah's mazaar.

One minute past midnight on August 14, Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation from Parliament. Later that evening, President Leghari hosted a reception at his official residence.

That there was some tension between the President, who has been reduced to a figurehead by the repeal of the law that gave him the power to dismiss an elected Ministry, and the Prime Minister was palpable at the official functions; it also came in for much media comment. In the recent past, President Leghari has adversely commented on the Accountability Act introduced by the Nawaz Sharif Government. These differences are indicative of the problems that Pakistan still faces while dealing with issues of institution-building. The restoration of power to Parliament and the Prime Minister was widely welcomed, but some commentators saw the now-scrapped provision as a check against the unbridled exercise of power by the head of Government. And the repeal of the law has not improved the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister, which remains somewhat uneasy.

HOW do Pakistanis see themselves and their country? Do they feel cause for celebration? The responses varied - from the enthusiastic to the measured to the downright cynical. A government employee told Frontline: "Yes, I celebrated in a big way. It was an occasion to celebrate. My house was lit up. But behind the happiness, there was also a mood of introspection. There is little doubt that our sense of values has suffered terrible blows in these 50 years."

Another government employee whose institution may be privatised soon said that he stayed in bed the whole of August 14. "There was little for me or my family to celebrate. Making ends meet is difficult enough. I had no time, money or inclination to celebrate."

Pakistan's population rose from 32.5 million in 1947 to (a projected figure of) 135.28 million in 1997. There are varying assessments of how Pakistan has performed, and of whether the dream of August 1947, when the nation was born, has been realised or not.

Rehana Hakim, editor of Newsline, an independent monthly journal, put it somewhat bluntly: "What is there to celebrate? The bankruptcy of this nation? Every Pakistani is indebted to the tune of $500. The lack of vision of its leaders? The corruption of its ruling classes? That we rank fifth on Transparency International's list of corrupt countries this year? The intolerance of the country's religious and ethnic groups? In the days ahead of August 14 several hundred people were killed in ethnic and sectarian violence." "Or," she asked, "do we celebrate the abject poverty of the masses? Around 36 million people still live below the poverty line, 66 million do not have access to health care, 89 million do not have sanitation facilities and two-thirds of the country's 130 million are still illiterate. And despite all this, 26 per cent of the national budget is diverted towards the armed forces. According to one estimate, a year's defence allocation could help build over 100,000 schools and educate 23 million primary schoolchildren."

Rehana Hakim said that all was not well with the state of Pakistan. "Its chequered history is marked by several years of military rule, three wars with India, the loss of its eastern wing, the rise of the gun and drug cultures and the continuing sectarian and ethnic conflicts." Pakistan's biggest tragedy, she said, was the calibre of its public representatives and its leaders, who lacked the political will to take far-reaching decisions to shape the country's destiny and give it a sense of purpose and a national identity.

"The scenario," she concluded, "is one of doom and gloom. But what gives this country a semblance of hope is its people, who have displayed remarkable resilience in the face of all odds."

Political commentator Ardeshir Cowasjee told Frontline: "We have nothing to celebrate." Asked why be believed so, Cowasjee said: "We've never had democracy. We have either had fascism or martial law. We lost half the country in 1971. All we can celebrate is 50 years of half a country. Our present leaders are just as corrupt as the Indian leaders. At best you had three good men - Gandhi, Nehru and Shastri; even their worst detractors could not accuse them of corruption. We just had one man, Jinnah, who died within one year of the establishment of Pakistan. His creed, his ideals, his broad thinking died with him."

The non-official Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a statement in which it said that the golden jubilee should not be "reduced merely to rituals. It should be used to convert rhetoric and cliches into credible commitments for the future, such as will make people begin to feel genuinely proud to belong to this country, make them feel they have personal stakes in its future."

Calling for a "charter of obligations" on the part of the state, the HRCP statement said that while the people realised that the state by itself could not immediately guarantee every citizen's right to life, "they do expect that the law will stay ahead of the criminals, the state will be conscious of the factors behind the incidence of crimes, and that the due process of law will always be guaranteed." The people do not all expect to become prosperous, the statement said, "but they feel they have a right to basic necessities, to a minimum standard of living, and to the provision of minimal facilities in public health, education and basic services." "And the people feel they have a right to a system of governance that works, that makes the rulers responsive to their needs, resistant to the pressures of the vested political, economic and religious interests and conscious of the demands of progress," the statement added.

THE problems that Pakistan faces are enormous. On the economic front, debt-servicing and defence expenditure will eat up 63.5 per cent of the country's budget in 1997-98. The country's development is inextricably linked to economic recovery.

It also faces serious threats on the law and order front. The Nawaz Sharif Government enacted the severe Anti-Terrorism Act in a bid to stem rising incidents of sectarian terrorism.

However, Pakistan today has a civilian Government with a massive electoral mandate. Given its experience in democracy, that by itself is something to celebrate - although it remains to be seen whether or not Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will become the first civilian chief executive of Pakistan to last a full term in office.

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