Pakistan is celebrating 75 years of independence. A country made free not by revolution but by reason is undergoing one of the worst crises it has ever faced. The driving force of the ongoing upheaval is a betrayal of the values that the first generation of Pakistanis, led by Jinnah himself, represented. So long as Pakistanis continue to betray these core values espoused by the forgotten generation, the country and its society will at best muddle along and at worst spiral out of control.
As I argued in a previous column published for this magazine months ago, “Jinnah, one of the greatest constitutional minds of his era, could not have imagined in his wildest dreams that his great achievement would end up as a society ruled by men who represented values that he abhorred the most.” As Pakistanis celebrate whatever little there is to celebrate about Pakistan reaching this milestone, it is important to take a moment and reflect on what Pakistan has become and what it was supposed to be.
Let’s start with the core principle of constitutionalism, which was near and dear to Jinnah’s heart. He secured independence for a significant proportion of the subcontinent’s Muslims by argument, waging war through moral, political, and constitutional weapons at his disposal. Today, his successors have abandoned these just, potent weapons and adopted cynical strategies, seeking to secure power by propagating lies, sowing hatred, and dividing society.
In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, underprivileged men and women go missing, spending their best and most productive years in dark cells. The judiciary, whose job is to uphold the letter and spirit of the law, and protect the most vulnerable members of society, ignore this daily injustice, preferring instead to engage in a cynical game of power being played by a kleptocratic elite.
Politicians, whose job is to represent their constituents and make efforts to improve their lives, ignore their electoral promises. Instead, they choose to rule through patronage and backroom deals, going to the masses only when there is a need to improve their bargaining position in the testosterone-dominant drawing rooms of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
While men in uniform bravely confront a diverse range of threats confronting their homeland, embracing martyrdom in the process, those leading them prefer to secure their own retirement package; the most influential of these men choose to not even spend a day within their homeland after retiring from a position of power and prestige, seeking a better life in greener pastures across the Arabian Sea and beyond.
Industrialists and business leaders, rather than embracing the core tenets of market capitalism, seek protections and rents. Paid for by an increasingly burdened citizenry, these rents are divvied up between the kleptocratic elite and then funneled abroad, enriching the real estate developers in Dubai, luxury retailers in London, and private wealth bankers in Switzerland. Some of this money finds its way back to Pakistan through “donations” given for revolutionary political causes.
The ultimate loser in this system is the ordinary Pakistani citizen. But the citizenry is also not without blame: for far too long, Pakistanis have followed wolves who have taken them to the slaughterhouse time and time again. The trick that they fell for is as old as history – blinded by base emotions and their own biases, they have allowed the ruling class to divide and conquer them. They have embraced the divisions sown in society with ease, drinking out of the poisoned chalices of sectarian, ethnic, and religious division.
As the ongoing political and economic crisis shows, the status quo is reaching a breaking point. While status quo elites celebrate securing enough funding from the usual patrons to live another day, all the signals point to the fact that the Sick Man of South Asia can no longer muddle along.
Something, somewhere, has to give.
The biggest hope for Pakistan is its next generation. This generation is connected to the world and does not take no for an answer. It will be the most potent force in Pakistani politics moving forward, meaning that it can drive change at an unimaginable pace. But this younger generation also faces significant challenges: it has experienced nothing except the secular decline of Pakistan’s economy, about 25% of them are illiterate (almost 50% if you look at women), and face a crisis of opportunity and inclusion.
To change their own and Pakistan’s destiny, this emerging generation must take matters into its own hands. Trusting the old guard, especially the tired old men who have been around the block forever, is going to bring nothing but disaster. The question is: as Pakistan marches towards 100 years of independence, will its young generation trust itself, and not the old guard, to unite the country and embrace the idea of Jinnah’s Pakistan?