On August 14, Pakistan will turn 72. For humans, 72 may be an advanced age, for states it is a relatively short time although long enough to determine how much progress, if any, has been made.
Economic development, employment, social cohesion, heath facilities, education, justice, law and order, and the environment are some of the major issues that a state must address. At the external front, relations with other states have to be carefully calibrated to ensure the state is not threatened or adversely affected by decisions made by others. Before addressing these, let us first briefly consider the circumstances of its emergence and what challenges it faced at birth.
Pakistan’s 72-year history, like most other Muslim countries, has been quite turbulent. Although its existence is rooted in the long history of Muslim presence in the region, its emergence on the world map on August 14, 1947 was nothing short of miraculous despite the displacement of millions of people as well as the mass killings of millions of others.
Leaders of the Pakistan movement faced two implacable foes: the Hindus and British, both wily and working hand-in-glove to deny the emergence of Pakistan. Failing that, they wanted to ensure it would be a truncated state meant to fail and fall into the eager embrace of mother India.
A truncated Pakistan it was that emerged, its two wings separated by 1,000 miles of hostile Indian territory. Areas and people that should have become part of Pakistan as per the partition plan were denied it, of which the state of Jammu and Kashmir stands out as the most glaring example. Relations between India and Pakistan have remained strained ever since, resulting in three major wars, the loss of its eastern wing that is now Bangladesh, and a tense military standoff on the line of control in Kashmir.
Where does Pakistan stand today? Stocktaking is important. Archrival India has taken huge strides economically even if it has failed to ameliorate the plight of hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken people. The ubiquitous caste system hangs around its neck like a millstone, an indelible blot on the conscience of humanity.
Pakistan does not suffer from the oppressive caste system but living among Hindus for more than 1,000 years, these discriminatory practices have polluted the thinking of a segment Muslims now residing in Pakistan. Let us, however, consider what has prevented Pakistan from making progress when other countries that emerged at the same time or even later have surged ahead economically.
True, economic progress is not the only indicator of a country’s progress but it is important. People need food to survive. A hungry person is an angry person yet it is astonishing to see that despite 60 million poor people (out of a total population of 220 million), there isn’t much anger expressed by the poor in Pakistan. Despair leading to suicides is also not visible, unlike many other countries. In Pakistan’s case, as in most other Muslim-majority countries, it has to do with the teachings of Islam that prevent people from falling into despair regardless of their circumstances.
So what is preventing Pakistan from achieving its true potential? It is not a poor country, only poorly managed so far. It has fertile soil even if its water resources have been squandered resulting in a major water crisis. Its forests and trees have been decimated covering merely 8% of the land today when the minimum required is 15%. This has caused an environmental crisis that in turn has led to respiratory diseases and other ailments.
Lack of adequate resource allocations to health and education sectors have also stymied growth. Government-run hospitals are overcrowded, the standard of hygiene is low and most medical staff are rude to patients. Medicines are often adulterated because there are few if any checks to ensure companies do not sell adulterated drugs. Private hospitals as well as private medical colleges have sprung up everywhere. Their standards vary.
Literacy rates in Pakistan are woefully low. With the exception of Afghanistan, Pakistan falls below most of its neighbors. Even Bangladesh that emerged following the Indian invasion of then East Pakistan in 1971 has surged ahead (the Human Development Index or HDI is a UN ranking of 189 countries annually; figures below are for 2018)
Despite suffering decades of illegal sanctions, Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 has taken massive strides both in education and health. In 1979, Iran’s literacy rate was 52%; today, it is nearing 100% literacy. Similarly, on the human development index, it stands way above any of its neighbors except China. War-wracked Afghanistan is in a category of its own.
Let us return to the case of Pakistan where a three-tier education system prevails. Those who can afford the hefty fees send their children to private schools. This is a tiny minority. Products of these schools go on to university, often abroad — Britain, the US, Canada, or Australia. Most stay and work there; those who return occupy important posts in government or industry. This is the elite class.
Even among private schools, there are two kinds: those with higher standards charge exorbitant fees. Others are low-level schools where the children of middle-class families enroll. Just like their relatively modest fees, their standard of education is also mediocre. There has been an explosion of such schools in recent years that are little more than money-making ventures.
Government-run schools are over-crowded, teaching standards are low and their products barely make it to become clerks in offices. Teachers’ salaries are low, hence such schools attract poorly qualified and poorly motivated individuals as teachers. Absenteeism is widespread.
At the bottom of the education pyramid are the much-vilified madrasahs (religious schools) where the very poor send their children. The madrasahscater to the needs of some four million children. Unfortunately most of these madrasahs teach sectarianism and produce students whose minds are filled with hate for other Muslims who follow a different school of thought. This is the direct result of funding from Saudi Arabia and its equally obscurantist allies in the Muslim East. That still leaves some three million Pakistani children without access to education. Poverty plays a major role in this. They become street urchins or indulge in petty crime.
So the question is: who is responsible for this dismal state of affairs? Hard as it may be to swallow but the fact is that Pakistan is not truly independent. This needs elaboration.
Prior to the British colonization of India, the predominant system was largely based on Muslim values of egalitarianism. Persian was the official language; Muslim rulers allowed different faith communities to have their own judicial system and while a minority, Muslim rulers generally treated their Hindu subjects fairly.
Upon taking control of India both through guile as well as brute force, the British indulged in their favorite pastime: intrigue. They not only divided people along religious lines pitting Hindus against Muslims but among Muslims, they created further divisions. Those who resisted British colonialism — primarily religious scholars — were ruthlessly suppressed. Many were hanged or blown to pieces by cannon fire. Others were exiled to uninhabited islands in the Indian Ocean.
Together with a campaign of vilification of Islam, the British also created a new breed of Muslims. This class was taught to converse in English, acquired British education, manners and habits. They also dressed like the British. In the words of Lord Macaulay, these became perfect “Brown Englishmen.” Muslims who betrayed their own kith and kin to serve British colonialism were awarded titles and rewarded vast land estates. Not one landowning family in Pakistan can trace their ownership beyond 1857, the year the Muslims made a last ditch attempt to overthrow British colonial rule, but failed.
It is this class of Brown Englishmen and the feudal lords and their offspring that today rule Pakistan. The departing — or not so departing British — handed power over to this class of people. In their 100-year rule, the British not only changed the education and judicial systems but also occupied the minds of Muslims infusing them with a deep sense of inferiority complex.
Today, for the Pakistani ruling elite, Western approval of their conduct remains the highest form of compliment. If Western officials come to visit Pakistan, the elite are overwhelmed with joy. The ruling elite are also thoroughly corrupt. In its 72-year history, Pakistan has acquired enormous debt — more than $90 billion. It is unable to pay even the interest on such debt, much less the principal amount. Most of this wealth has been pilfered and stashed in Western banks. Two families in particular are responsible for this dismal state of affairs: the Bhutto-Zardari combine and the Sharifs. While the heads of both families — Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari — are currently behind bars facing a raft of charges, the corrupt judicial system prevents their receiving adequate punishment and return of the looted wealth.
The new Prime Minister Imran Khan is gamely trying to keep his head above the water and keep the country afloat but he is surrounded by the same set of thieves and blackmailers that have reduced Pakistan to this sorry state over 72 years. There is no doubt that Imran Khan is sincere and honest and wants to do good but his hands are tied by the same corrupt system that has enabled the loot and plunder to continue. Regrettably, even many judges are corrupt. With this state of affairs, how can there be justice?
So the question that most people ask is: what is to be done? The first point to understand is that the prevailing system in Pakistan is not responsive to the needs of the people. The overwhelming majority of people want an Islamic system in the country. This is not to be confused with the obscurantist maulvis that have caused so much chaos in the country. They have at best nuisance value. The masses yearn for the Islamic system of the Prophet’s time and that of his rightly guided successors. They may not be able to articulate it but they immediately respond when they are told about it.
The prevailing system bequeathed by the British colonialists has failed. The masses have no faith in it regardless of how many cycles of elections the country goes through. Lack of people’s participation in such elections is a clear indication of their disdain and their belief that regardless of who is in power, their lot will not change.
As Albert Einstein said, if an experiment does not yield the result you want, simply repeating it will not change the outcome. The same principle applies to Pakistan.
Are the ruling elite prepared to listen and try a different system that would set Pakistan on the course to true freedom and dignified existence? One can hope and pray but there is little room for optimism.