Covid-19 has turned the collective gaze of society inwards in more ways than one. Families in the subcontinent and world over have begun to grow accustomed to a life confined within four walls, the exuberant social scenes of the cities have died down, and the accusatory fingers of politicians that consistently found their ways to each other’s malpractices have largely taken a rest.
In this atmosphere of relative introspection, after my arrival from an evacuated university, I find myself on a drive punctuated by security checkpoints to the small village in central Punjab, Pakistan I call home. The writ of the government isn’t nearly as strong here as in the city, yet the authority of wartime persists. A group of three young men is pulled off a single motorbike onto the side of the road by the police. A small crowd forms.
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‘Only the danda can fix this nation’
The biker boys of Okara, Pakistan — a loveable bunch that is particularly known for its disrespect for authority — reluctantly assume the position of punishment prescribed to them. Crouched down, their arms travel below the knees to reach back upwards and grip their ears. It is an order meant in equal parts to inflict discomfort and public humiliation, common, but without any sanctity by law. The last thing I hear before this check post spectacle is left behind me in the dusty heat of rural Punjab is the quip of a bystander; ‘Only the danda can fix this nation’.
Though this isn’t the first time I have heard the philosophy of the danda (stick), it may just be the most ironic. See, the humble wooden stick takes on a new life when held by a position of authority in Pakistan. It has come to represent all that is outside the realm of permissibility but turned a blind eye to for what is deemed the greater good. It is used by police on protestors, riot squads on fanatical mobs and headmasters on naughty schoolboys. It is the barrier between the sacred and the profane, beyond which lies the dark void of arbitrary human cruelty.
The philosophy of the danda is one propagated by a variety of those who in some way or the other manages to exclude themselves from its receiving end. Members of the conservative society of my old university in the South of England during campus meetings, and proponents of dictatorship at Lahori weddings are two such examples.
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Its central argument, while subject to variabilities, is that the ordinary people of Pakistan are inherently flawed in their respect for due process require strict measures not necessarily within the scope of the law to keep them in check. The British conservative, cigar-puffing authoritarian and check post bystander, would all agree that our ‘people’ deserve brute force, while excluding themselves from the ‘people’.
Churchill’s false Indian history
Reasons for the emergence of this mindset are subject to argument — religious fanaticism, the prevalence of crime or apparent economic successes of dictatorships. But I propose one behind it all: a grand distortion of where we, as a nation, are from.
Winston Churchill famously said, ‘I know history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it’. And indeed, he did, for today, the colonial history of Pakistan remains whitewashed to such an extent that Churchill is remembered more as a charismatic leader than the racist, egotistical mass-murdering oppressor that he was to the Indian subcontinent. In the Bengal famine of 1943, over 6 million people died as a direct result of Churchill redirecting food supplies from an already starving subcontinent to aid the war effort.
Railway tracks were ripped out of Indian soil and shipped off to Europe along with 2.5 million Indians (over 40% of whom were Muslims) who fought and died for the British crown. Today, monuments in London honour the animals who served in World War 2 but none of the Indians. Within a span of 200 years, Britain took the richest nation on the planet home to a quarter of the world GDP, and left it as one of the worlds poorest.
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Britain extorted India’s agriculture, starved its people, built its economy on the backs of its most destitute and used its soldiers as cannon fodder. To this day Britain has not offered any country in the subcontinent an apology. ‘Why should we?’, the colonisers must have thought to themselves. These are an uncivilised people. They needed a disciplined institution to come in and take charge. A looming force to keep them in check, ready to strike at the slightest deviation. A stick of some sort.
In a recently re-popularised video clip that has garnered over 2.7 million views online, columnist and TV analyst Hassan Nisar vehemently object to a viewer’s assertion that while the Western world may be ahead of us in science and technology, it is no match for our values of morality. He does so by passionately listing the evils of modern Pakistan to make the case that we as a society have fallen to unspeakable lows. To the point where our people’s morality is inherently inferior to that of the Western world. It is an argument that would have brought a smile to Churchill’s face.
From the Persian empire’s Code of Hammurabi (the first known written form of law from 1754 BC) — to the founding of mathematics and unprecedented advancements in medicine — a vast number of the cornerstones of human civilisation before the 17th century can be traced back to the ancestors of modern-day South Asians. This was when a small island nation on the other side of the globe sent its ships to the flourishing civilisation that was the Indian subcontinent.
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British, by using gunpowder and a pinch of patience, broke the Empire’s back economically and grabbed its resources. They plunged its people into poverty, and perhaps in the most cruel move of all, convinced it that it was all well deserved. That the economic depravity and communal tensions of the young nations that emerged, bloody and battered from the horrors of partition were not symptoms of their past, but inherent in their people’s nature. Colonial Britain wrote the history. The tragedy was that we believed it.
“Us vs. Them” mentality
There is little doubt in my mind that a recurring disdain for the majority of our nation by an elite few is a legacy of colonialism — an imprint of an us vs them, messiah complexed mentality that has far outstayed its welcome in a modern democracy. But alas, every sickness has its cure, and the optimal prescription in this scenario is a deeper understanding of one’s history.
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Indian author Shashi Tharoor famously said, if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you can’t appreciate where you’re going. With the right priorities in our outlook on the past, we will be able to truly appreciate a future Pakistan liberated from self-loathing and extra-judicial cruelties. And with any luck, the biker boys of Okara will be free to follow the rules of the road and have the consequences restricted to the scope of the law if they don’t.
Hassan Kamal Wattoo is a scholar at SOAS, University of London, and president of the SOAS Law Society. He writes regularly on law, politics, philosophy, and culture, and tweets at @hkwattoo1. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.