Thursday, January 5, 2012

Pakistan at the Cross-Road: Views from a Young Student from Across the Border

[This article was published in CRITIQUE, Vol-1, Issue-3. Critique is a Quarterly brought out by the Delhi University Chapter of New Socialist Initiative (NSI)]
- Saadullah Awan
In the address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on the 11th of August 1947,  Mohammad Ali Jinnah stated, “If we want to make this great State of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor..”

Over the 64 years of the existence of the nation, the ominous statement has been forgotten in the archives of other religious, political and communitarian rhetoric of our politicians and leaders. It is not necessarily their fault. Who is the average Pakistani? Is he the middle-aged man toiling away on the vast land of his landlord in the scorching heat of the Sindh deserts, only to be paid a paltry sum? Is she the old Punjabi woman who washes the clothes and cleans the bathrooms of the upper middle class in the metropolis of Karachi for less than minimum wage? Or is he the Pathan truck driver transporting goods, driving alongside BMWs and Landcrusisers, and smoking hashish at the end of the day, to drown his miseries away?

The only common denominator about the masses in Pakistan, it seems, is the fact that they are mostly illerate and poor. Around 73% of the population lives on under 2 US Dollars a day and the literacy rate for men is a mere 67% while for females it is 42%. Another common denominator is religion: 97% of the population of 180 million is Muslim.

However it isn’t prudent to generalize the population on these lines. Most people in Pakistan base their loyalties not on being Pakistani but on ethnicity and religious sects they think they belong to.

Pakistan consists of 5 major communities (in popular parlance they are referred to as ethnicities): Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi, Pathan and Mohajir. Each community has many political parties claiming to represent them along side radical party like formations claiming their ultimate goal as secession such as the Baloch Liberation Army and the Sindudesh Movement. Around 70% of the Muslim population follows Sunni Islam while somewhere between 10-20% follow Shia Islam. The Shia sect is, again, broken down into many more sub-sects as is the case with the Sunnis. The elite would live their liberal lives in the suburbs and downtown areas of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad but the masses have been exposed to a different brand of social life and politics. ‘Mullahs’ of the local mosques could make speeches against the Government, demand laws and preach their own version of the religion without any fear of Government reprisal. It has been an irony of the western values of ‘freedom of speech’. Following the 1973 constitution, a sect of the religion, the Ahmadis, were branded as ‘Non-Muslim’. This led to a massive purge of the whole sect, not just physically, but economically and politically as General Zia’s ‘Ordinance XX’ outlawed them from proclaiming their faith or else face fines of any amount and imprisonment of up to 3 years. This period was the beginning of an era of ‘Intolerance of the State’. Pakistan was a relatively liberal country, legally speaking, up until the late seventies/early eighties. After the disastrous ‘Islamization’ policies of General Zia, the mullahs found their way into the political forefront. Matters did not help that the general population was sympathetic to the religious right after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the so-called ‘Great Jihad’ that had begun. Dogmatised in extreme beliefs, they were suddenly politicized after Pakistan became an ‘Islamic Republic’. This led to one of the worst periods in sectarian violence in Pakistan as riots and mass murders of Shias, Ahmedis and other sects began. Sunni militant groups sprung up backed and funded by the Arab States and their strict ‘Wahabi’ Islamic leanings and on the other hand Shia militant groups were backed to the hilt by the Iranian State. Pakistan, a relatively young State, was not united in terms of one nation anymore. It was a nation where religious sects were battling for supremacy and this has continued to this day, as militant Sunni groups attack Shia religious processions more often than not. Musa Raza, a student who graduated from Karachi Grammar School not so long ago says that “when I was a student in the 4th grade studying at City School PAF Chapter two-three kids never spoke to me for two weeks because I was a Shi'ite. I don't, at any point, feel oppressed, and if anything I feel, I feel more vigor, and I am more passionately vocal because I know that my community is surrounded by adversaries. It makes us stronger, at the least. You saw that in the recent bomb blast during the Shi’ite procession. The shi'ites continued the procession to its end and didn't stop despite the horrendous scenes that had unfolded”

The question isn’t whether the general population is tolerant or not. At face value, most of the population is. It is just that the few extremist organizations have so powerfully perpetrated into society that they can cause copious amount of damage. Sectarian violence has become so common between rival militant groups that its hard to say if they even think about themselves as ‘Pakistanis’ anymore. And while few in number, they are in possession of dangerous weapons and huge financial support from the Wahabi Arab States and Iran.

What is even more unfortunate is that these groups are filling in the gap in providing education which the Government has failed to do. The amount of funds allocated to education in the budget of the government is 0.8%. The religious groups, funded by wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia and Iran, set up madrasas or religious schools where children are fed, clothed and taught the extremist Islamic fundamentals. Maulana Sami-Ul-Haq, a religious leader of a militant group, confided in journalist Mary Anne Weaver that President Pervez Musharraf gave him assurances that the madrasas will not be shut down because they provide lodgings and food for the poor. When asked about this in an interview with the journalist, the President said that “all the talk about them teaching militancy is hearsay. I have met with some of their leaders and they said ‘has anyone from the ministry of education ever come? No, only the police and intelligence chiefs. We’re being treated as dacoits!”.

However books from these schools tell a chilling tale: one textbook from a madrasa during the time of the soviet invasion of Afghanistan (ironically printed in the University of Nebraska, USA) shows the Arabic alphabet “Kaaf” being taught as “Kaaf for Kalashnikov”.

Thus, a process of cradle-to-grave indoctrination of the youth of Pakistan had begun as successive governments, military or civilian, either sympathized with the madrasas or felt their powerbase would be threatened if they started a purge of the religious schools.

In a country where government spending on education is a dismal 0.8% of the total budget, how do we plan to instill the true values of democracy and freedom? How can a country so torn into religious and provincial discrimination dream of becoming a nation where the people’s best interest will be the first priority?

The outside world is living in delusion. Pakistan is not under a democracy. It is a sham, a mere formality that elections take place. Voters are so tired of getting the choice of choosing between the most corrupt and the lesser corrupt that most of the population doesn’t vote anymore. The politicians are all part of the land-owning and military elite. The common person does not have a choice, s/he is forced to live under the system.

Even student politics in universities is not based on ideological or political grounds anymore, it is based on ethnicity and religion. Student unions don’t consist of politically astute and ideologically driven people anymore, they consist of young men with firearms, fighting with rival groups under the banner of another political party. These militant unions  are funded by our ‘democratically elected leaders’ of the PPP, the MQM, the ANP etc to fuel their corrupt and power hungry parties.

But like myself, scores of secular educated students of Pakistan firmly believe that things can be made better. Education is the key. We have different communities each with their own language and culture. Pakistan needs to instill values of patriotism and tolerance of all castes and creeds in Pakistan. A fellow student from Karachi, Salman Ali Asad strongly feels that “the masses needs to be educated in such a way that these differences will not matter anymore and all that will matter is the nation”. The State and society needs to be forced to provide education with modern values for all, food security for all and provide resources to all of our people without discrimination. Its not easy, but we have to.

Pakistan needs a radical change. And this change can only come from the new generation. The generation that has the will and tools to make a difference and work according to the fundamentals of a secular, truly democratic and free society.

And we resolve to achieve this at any cost.

Saadullah Awan has recently graduated from Karachi Grammar School.


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