Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The 50 years we squandered

Dr. Umar Khan
Dr. Khan heads a Lahore based Think Tank.

Watching the tragic bomb blast in the FIA building on the temple Road my mind wandered away to 1966, full forty two years back. I was standing with my brother just across the road from where the FIA building now stands with a school bag in hand when a tear gas shell fell in front of me and started emitting pungent gas. I developed extreme discomfort in the eyes and felt a bit dizzy. We were trying to get to the Regal bus stop to go home after school but were caught in the anti Tashkent protest. I still remember a familiar face of a student leader Hamid Khan in the rally. A much older Hamid Khan is still struggling against the military rulers, now as a lawyer. Scared and confused, we ran frantically until we were picked by parents of another student who took us home. Let me remind the readers that in 1966 I was seven years old and my brother was eight.

In these 42 years the world changed. The second super power disintegrated, poor countries like Korea, Taiwan etc became rich and the hopeless overpopulated countries like India and China are on the road to greatness but situation doesn’t appear as rosy for us. We must periodically asses our progress and make changes wherever necessary. What did we gain and what did we lose in the last 42 years, let’s take a birds eye view.

To begin with, the simple fact that 7 year old children with cars at home commuting to school in ordinary public busses speaks a lot about the law and order situation then. It was peaceful and parents could feel reasonably secure with children going in busses. The weather of Lahore was as hot but air conditioners were unheard-of and people used to sleep in the open streets without fear. Fights and violence was rare and firearms even rarer. The deadliest weapon was a dagger and that also was mostly for scaring. Now we see rocket launchers on the streets and even the police and army is insecure. There are bombs, suicide missions, machine guns and many private armies in our society. We certainly didn’t fare well in the law and order situation as it has worsened by leaps and bounds.

There was corruption in the society in 1966 but the corrupt were few and a bit embarrassed. They were known and looked down as the general public didn’t confer respectability due to their ill earned gains. The situation is totally changed now. After many many tirades against corruption by the illegitimate military rulers, corruption has not only increased exorbitantly but it is also accepted, rather respected in society. Corruption is no longer considered immoral and morality has been restricted to apparent gender or sexual issues. Now people unable to explain their astonishing wealth roam about proudly in their flashy cars and contest elections. No one asks them how they accumulated this wealth or at whose expense. We have developed a perfect immunity for the corrupt a bit like the Woody Allen Movie, “Take the money and run”. We have made Pakistan safe heavens for the corrupt as long as they agree to be subservient to the rulers.

Pakistan was then the biggest Islamic country which stood united in the 65 war. This unity was badly damaged by our numerous military rulers and finally Pakistan broke into two in a very painful manner a few years later. Still the dictators didn’t learn anything and they further weakened the internal cohesion by their catastrophic adventurism over their own people. Now we have gravely damaged state institutions and distrust among the federating units has increased. In short we have a much weaker federation than 42 years back.

In 1966 we were fighting American cold war as an ally and we are still fighting their proxy war. Then it was against the communists but now it is against our own brethren in the name of war against terror. Then our military dictator when dumped after years of service to the imperialists wrote “Friends not masters” and the current dictator is still mustering courage to write such a book. I suspect that he will never do it as he still harbors hope and is more convinced of American invincibility than the Americans themselves. In the process we sacrificed our people and national pride and priorities to please someone who is not difficult but impossible to please. We proved Henri Kissinger right who said “The only thing worse than American hostility is its friendship”. We have become a tragic example of this calamitous prediction.

We lost much of our sovereignty and foreign powers openly kill and kidnap our people. Now they have gotten even more blatant and they frankly interfere in our political affairs making and breaking governments. Most historians would agree that the viceroys of the British days didn’t interfere in the local political issues as much as the Americans do in our political affairs. Unfortunately Americans are not alone interfering in our affairs as a host of other countries also play their part. I am not aware of any other country in the world with so much effective foreign interference in their local political scene, including the banana republics. In these circumstances what good are the nuclear bombs or missiles that we boast of so much is anybody’s guess as a bomb unable to secure sovereignty of a nation loses much of its luster.

Then comes the most painful part of assessing our progress and that is our political development. In 1966 nearly all the third world was without democracy and we were being ruled by a military dictator who had removed his uniform and we are still being ruled by one. Both dictators wrote their own constitutions and tried to establish dubious legitimacy for their rule. They claimed to have managed phenomenal economic and other progress in the country and shared contempt for the common man. Ayub Khan’s rule of progress ended in disaster with dismemberment of the country while Musharraf’s end appears close and I pray we avoid the ruinous consequences many pundits predict of. Now we have a dubious distinction of being one of the 3 countries in the entire world being ruled by soldiers. Yes we are talking of the country created by elected assemblies and complete process of law and democracy.

Our economy occasionally appears well but according to most economists the progress is superficial and without solid footing. Our image of a democratic progressive Islamic country has taken a nose dive and in today’s world our green passport has become the most unwelcome one nearly across the world. Episode of terrorism or nuclear proliferation anywhere somehow has connections to Pakistan. This is despite the fact that Pakistanis are still the friendly, lively and peaceful people. The state and its machinery is as callous towards its people as it was 42 years ago firing shells at 7 years old students.

What have we made of a wonderful country we got as a blessing? How and why did we miss the golden opportunity we got with the creation of our country? Where did we go wrong? We must answer these questions because it is the ordinary Pakistanis who are paying the price with their lives. We can’t afford to avoid or duck this question. Detailed study might require a book but we can certainly look for obvious reasons. Let’s try.

Before attempting this intricate task we must guard against the common mistake many of us commit and that is blaming others for our mistakes and follies. Many of us have gotten used to blaming others for our problems trying to find some kind of conspiracy against us. Although there might be some substance in this approach, one thing is for certain and that is that all conspiracies against us somehow obtain our silent support or consent so important for the nefarious scheme to succeed. Trying to find foreign enemies is counterproductive because we can’t change our enemies but can correct ourselves so that we don’t become easy prey anymore. This is the only way to successfully fight our scheming enemies.

There are 2 important things in which the world made giant leaps whereas we regressed ignoring them. First it is education and the other is democracy, or empowerment of our people. We had experienced democracy of sorts’ since the thirties and had elected governments and institutions in the 40s and 50s. Instead of going forward we reverted denying our people their right to choose governments. This practice eventually made them indifferent and they lost interest becoming apathetic about the country focusing on their survival and sustenance. This resulted in waves of migration abroad making leaving the country the most popular option for the Pakistanis. Not a very flattering statement.

The other grave omission was our neglect of education. Despite repeated flashy but dishonest claims about education the fact is that we are spending one of the lowest on education in the entire world. The previous government according to some estimates spent more on its political advertisements and personal glamour from the education budget than education itself. The worse part was that despite whispers no one had the courage to confront them with this obvious and negative practice which lasted a long time. Fortunately it is now proven that this cruelty with the children’s education money didn’t get them their desired results and they lost badly in the elections. As a result of our criminal negligence towards education while we were the most educated in the world after Europe and the Americas, today we have lower literacy than most of Africa. That alone speaks volumes about our neglect.

We might be well advised to do some soul searching and make a commission ascertaining our reasons for deterioration honestly and then work hard to correct them. Our lag from the developed world is increasing whether economically, socially or otherwise and this must stop before we start the catching up. We must divert all our resources towards our most important asset, our people and educate them while empowering them politically. Our people have shown their capability to work wonders and I am sure they might surprise the world with their grit, determination and the unparalleled talent. Let us give them a chance.

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