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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Pakistan into 70th Year: Living dangerously, surviving & moving ahead despite all odds..!

Adil Najam |

Pakistan will turn 70 on August 14, 2017. It has been a tumultuous journey. Exciting. Adventurous. Unpredictable. Sometimes uplifting. Often heartbreaking. And, often, rash and dangerous. But never has there been a dull moment.

As we countdown to the country’s 70th birthday, it may be useful to look back at the journey thus far and try to see what lessons we could have learned. What is it that we have done in the past? What is it that we are encumbered by in the present? What is it that we can expect in the future?

To help myself think about this, I asked myself three sweepingly big question: What has been our biggest achievement? What has been our biggest disappointment? And, what is the biggest opportunity before us today?

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Here are the answers I came up with.

Past – biggest achievement

It may sound cynical, but it really is not. The only miracle bigger than the very creation of Pakistan was the survival of Pakistan. The battles of survival that were forced upon us then have had deep and lasting impacts that have shaped who we became. We came out victorious, but the wounds have been deep and some – most prominently, Kashmir – continue to bleed to this day.

Today it is difficult to imagine just how slim the chances of this nation’s survival were when it was first created. Nor how purposeful the efforts against our survival were, most particularly by Lord Mountbatten, the last and clearly the most incompetent and petty British viceroy in India.

The only miracle bigger than the very creation of Pakistan was the survival of Pakistan.

The boundary recommendations of the Radcliffe Commission, made by a man who had never ever set foot in India before he was asked to divide it, carved out a crippled dominion condemned to be untenable. The deceitful delay in announcing Cyril Radcliffe’s Award created a panic that elevated the murderous bloodshed of Partition to barbarous proportions.

Mountbatten may have thought that he was proving a point by being ambiguous about the fate of the princely states, but it left everyone confused and turned the once-beautiful Kashmir into the world’s longest-lasting and most dangerous flashpoint. Adding to the chaos was the impoverishment forced on the new state of Pakistan by the delay and mischief in the distribution of resources.

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Jamsheed Marker, the famed cricket commentator and long-time Pakistani diplomat, writes of being at elite parties at the New Delhi Gymkhana, where the conversation was “whether Pakistan would last for three months or six months.” On his return to Karachi he saw government offices working under the open sky in the sweltering heat, because offices were not available.

He remembers thinking at the time that this “was truly the Pakistan of Muhammad Ali Jinnah: indomitable, defiant, dedicated, and motivated. The country would surely last more than three months.” He was right. It did. And that may well be the most significant and singular achievement of a country that, in so many ways and for so many people, was meant never to be.

More than that, the idea that odds can be defied seems to have become part of a national belief. Unfortunately, whether on the cricket field in that last over of the game, or in response to horrific floods and earthquakes, that mysterious reservoir of grit and resilience has been on call far more times than it should have been.

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Present – biggest disappointment

The pang of living on the edge of survival, literally from the moment of our birth, has not been without costs. None more horrific than the politics of division, distrust and fear it has thrust upon us. We have been disastrously unable to develop a social contract that is comfortable in a national narrative, or Pakistaniat, without being fearful of external threats to our survival (ie security) or terrified of our own internal diversity of cultures and identity.

Yes, our politics is still ridden with division, distrust and fear, but I have no doubt that democracy, even if it is stumbling and imperfect, will define our next 70 years much more than it did the last 70.

For much of our 70 years, Pakistan’s political narrative has been told in stories of fear. There is constant refrain to ‘the enemy’ and the need to ‘defy its ugly intentions’. The only thing that excites the masses more than talk of “Pakistan key dushman” are discussions on “Islam key dushman.” While some enemies are well-known and ever-present, there is also enough ambiguity in this politics of fear to be able to create new – including unnamed – ones.

The root of the problem has been our failure to reconcile, let alone embrace, the ethnic, sectarian and, yes, religious diversity that came with 1947’s Pakistan. Our unwillingness and inability to create a unifying national identity has led us to seek refuge in the cloak of cosmetic religiosity. Most directly during the era of Ziaul Haq, but clearly from the very beginning, including during the rule of both Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, religious symbolism was used as a tool to force a uniformity that did not, in fact, exist in society.

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This politics of fear has given us a deeply divided society, ethnic unease, sectarian discomfort, a securitised state, at least three decades of direct military rule, and a deep distrust of all institutions – including that of the military itself, but especially of politics and politicians. Trust cannot be cultivated under the assumption that no one can be trusted. If our democracy has seemed flawed, it is mostly because our trust in democracy has been so flimsy.

Nowhere was this reality on more painful display than in the events of 1971. But, of course, 1971 did not actually happen in 1971. The distrust of the majority of the then Pakistanis whose language had been shunned, whose politicians sidelined, whose culture brought into question was borne out of fear. And out of fear the clearest electoral results became contestable.

Yes, India took advantage of the situation. But what else could we have expected it to do? The disappointment is that the situation was created by our own politics of division, distrust and fear. The deeper disappointment is that our politics continues to be defined by division, distrust and fear.

Future – biggest opportunity

I remain staunchly optimistic. Pakistan survived its first three months. It will certainly survive next 70 years. Yes, our politics is still ridden with division, distrust and fear, but I have no doubt that democracy, even if it is stumbling and imperfect, will define our next 70 years much more than it did the last 70.

There are many mammoth challenges that lie ahead of us. But there are also great opportunities. Yes, CPEC is one of those, but it is not our biggest opportunity. Our biggest opportunity, I believe, is something which, if we leverage it right, can help respond to all of these challenges.

I believe our greatest opportunity is the youth of Pakistan. The next 70 years of Pakistan will mostly be defined by the nearly 5.5 crore young Pakistanis who, today, are between 15 and 29 years of age.

The root of the problem has been our failure to reconcile, let alone embrace, the ethnic, sectarian and, yes, religious diversity that came with 1947’s Pakistan.

Today’s Pakistan not only feels and looks young, it is young. Go to any workplace in Pakistan, and the faces will be younger. All major political parties now reflect the youth reality. Some in their own leadership, all in their drooling desire to attract the ‘youth vote.’ Most interesting of all is how the young are trying to wrest control of the social narrative. Not just on social media, but in mainstream music, movies, television, advertising, journalism, the voices are increasingly young and the message is laden with calls for social change.

Herein lies the opportunity – but also the responsibility. The young can, indeed, turn things around dramatically, for the good or the bad. The difference will lie in the investments we make in them. Three types of investment will be particularly important.

Read more: 1970 Election: The Last Credible Vote in Pakistan’s History?

First, we need to provide quality education. The only threat worse than not providing education to the young is providing them with bad education. Unfortunately, most of our schools fail the quality test and our universities, which are starved of quality teachers as well as good students, are only making things worse.

Second, we need to create quality jobs. Employers complain, rightly, that they cannot find qualified workers. Young people complain, rightly, that their degrees don’t get them jobs. Pakistan will need between 10 and 15 lakh new jobs every year.

Finally, our youth need meaningful engagement. Do the young people of Pakistan believe that they have a say in the decisions that will impact their lives? If they do, they will become a force for positive change in Pakistan. If they don’t, we will have a new time bomb waiting for us.


Adil Najam is the founding dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University and was the former vice chancellor of LUMS in Pakistan. Twitter: @AdilNajam. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy. This piece was first published in The News International