It may seem like we have little to celebrate on our 68th Independence Day with August 14, 2014 poised to be a showdown between disgruntled demagogues and an inept heavy-handed government. While one would have thought that at least a sacred day, one that symbolises our painful birth, would have been spared street confrontation and be celebrated with some semblance of unity, there is no such luck. It does not seem to matter that the country is reeling from crisis after crisis, cannot provide electricity to its people or that it is confronted with a formidable terrorist backlash. Even as Pakistan burns, what matters to the political upper class, or their detractors, as the case may be, is who grabs the throne.
Under such circumstances, it is easy to be cynical, to degrade the struggle that led to Partition or to rubbish our raison d’etre. Yet, despite the wanting conditions in the country, at its core, Pakistan was a sound idea. It isn’t the reasoning for our creation that is at fault, but what we did with Pakistan thereafter that has led us to this mess.
Pakistan wasn’t created because Hindus and Muslims can’t live together. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Jains can and should be able to live together. However, it is also indisputable that religion plays a fairly potent role in defining communal identity, whether in the subcontinent or the Balkans. It is equally true that even in highly evolved, democratic and secular states that legally guarantee equal rights for all their citizens, the dominant culture is that of the majority.
Let’s take, for instance, the simple example of celebrating Eid in a Muslim-minority country, such as the UK or the US, both countries that I have lived in. While both guarantee equal rights to citizens irrespective of religion, and by and large, Muslims are free to practise their religion in these states without fear, Eid is not a public holiday in either place. Hence, if this important Muslim celebration falls on a weekday (as it mostly does), working Muslims find themselves in the awkward dilemma of having to ask for a day off. While most employers are cooperative in granting the day off, there may nonetheless be important work meetings scheduled on that day as it is not regarded as a holiday in the public conscience and thus, those who care about their careers may not feel taking a day off is the best course. Contrast that with Christmas when work slows down for a solid week allowing the majority to celebrate at ease and travel to be with their loved ones.
The point is that the majority, those who belong to the dominant culture, take much for granted while the minority struggles for recognition in the public space. Those belonging to the minority group also diverge in their approach as a result, with some making such a production of their religious identity that they inevitably ghettoise and harm their economic prospects, while others, perhaps distancing themselves from this group, become so private about their religion that their societal success makes little to no impact in gaining recognition for their community within the mainstream public sphere. And thus, the minority group as a whole cannot help but feel that it remains at the fringes and detached from the mainstream.
It is, therefore, to my mind, not contradictory at all that a secular-minded Jinnah would feel so strongly about Muslims as a bloc and lobby for their rights vis-a-vis the majority Hindu population. It is also entirely understandable then that the impetus for Pakistan came from the ‘minority provinces’, where the Muslim League was much stronger, than the ‘majority provinces’ that ultimately formed Pakistan. And while there have been some valid critiques as to why that has prevented democracy from taking root in Pakistan, the idea that Pakistan, as a homeland for Muslims, where they would be free not just to practise their religion, but also to prosper economically and promote their arts, architecture, language and heritage is necessarily exclusionary and the reason for the poor treatment of religious minorities in Pakistan today is tenuous.
Surely, there may have been some Muslims with an exclusionary bent of mind who joined the demand for Pakistan. Any large movement has divergent views within it. But certainly, the leadership was not of that view. Some of the religious groups being treated abysmally in Pakistan today, in fact, played a very active role in the creation of Pakistan and were assured full rights as citizens of the country, rights that were later encroached upon. Jinnah specifically also stated that Pakistan was not to be a theocracy and it is no secret that the likes of Maulana Maududi stood against the creation of Pakistan. The truth is that every country has its left-wingers and right-wingers, its tolerant and intolerant citizens. How a nation-state evolves and the groups that impact that evolution may change over time. Certainly, Erdogan’s Turkey, for example, has taken a course vastly different from Ataturk’s Turkey. Much of the Muslim world, including Iraq, historically the cradle of civilisation, is in upheaval today, which may well have been unpredictable a few decades ago.
To blame our creation for the way things stand today, therefore, is disingenuous. This Independence Day, I would rather aspire towards the Pakistan that could have been than lament the Pakistan that is.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 14th, 2014.