August 14, 2012 marks the 65th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence. A country of 170 million ethnically diverse and culturally rich people, Pakistan has come of age since 1947. Today, it has a civilian democratic setup, with a relatively smooth civil-military relationship, an assertive higher judiciary, a vibrant media and a proactive civil society. Perhaps the biggest progressive factor is the emergence of these new power centers.
There are, indeed, pivotal challenges on the home front, such as dysfunctional governance and energy shortage, as well as in external relations, particularly regarding the regional fight against terrorism. Yet, given its time-tested national resilience, Pakistan has defied doomsday prophecies about its state survival before. The same factor holds true for the future, especially as state power diffuses and central authority devolves in response to growing civilian aspirations at national, provincial and local levels.
Just like any other post-colonial state in the developing world, the country is in a state of transition. Recent decades have seen rapid urbanization, with all of its complex outcomes. Even amid recurrent internal and external statist and societal crises, there exist newer avenues for business and greater opportunities for education. There is this youth bulge calling for political change and looking for the due national space to make a difference.
In a country where dissonance is a national character, there will always be ample space for cynicism and despondency. And there is no doubt that, in some arenas, the national project as it has evolved since the mid-70s, seriously contrasts with the country’s founding ideals. The growth of religious extremism and its militant reflection in sectarian and other forms of terrorism, along with unending instances of violent ethnic strife, are ugly faces of this unfortunate phenomenon.
However, even amid such gory realities, Pakistan has not crumbled. If we compare the last two years with the previous two years, the level of domestic terrorism has come down considerably. The Army has undertaken credible successes against local Taliban groups in Swat and South Waziristan. The country was able to withstand considerable American pressure for well over a year, and then normalize its counter-terrorism relations with the superpower on mutually satisfying terms. Priorities in its foreign policy have also evolved in accordance with the changing regional geo-political situation. The traditionally strategic relationship with China has expanded, while relations with Russia have improved beyond expectations. Progress in trade ties with India and support to Afghan reconciliation process mark a shift in its traditional regional security paradigm.
In essence, Pakistan has all along been a country of contrasts. Even amid a situation of despair, there are always signs of hope. The problem is the former are often unduly highlighted and the latter get generally ignored in debates about Pakistan’s current state of affairs and its prospective future. Much of this problem lies in uncanny analyses of Pakistan’s well over half a century of history, especially the sort of difficulties the country began confronting right at its inception. An honest assessment of what Pakistan’s reality actually is lies in what it has been through in the past 65 years.
Pakistan was a crisis state right from the beginning. The Kashmir war, the disproportionate distribution of resources and the early death of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah were among the factors that caused this crisis. Mr. Jinnah was a pragmatist and a modernist. He may have used religion to raise the level of Muslim political consciousness to create mass Muslim support for equal rights before or independence in the end. However, as soon as Pakistan became a reality, he categorically stated that the business of the new state would not run on the basis of religion.
Mr. Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech is the finest statement on secularism, which meant that various religions, the majority Islam—and the minority Hindu, Sikh, Christian and others—will coexist in the new Republic of Pakistan. Islam as the last of the revealed faiths calls for such coexistence. Thus, the debate on Pakistan being an Islamic state or a secular republic is meaningless when Islamic and secular values are seen to be compatible.
The reason this issue has become debatable and controversial in Pakistani history is because the mainstream Islamist groups in the subcontinent, particularly Jama’at-e-Islami, were against the creation of Pakistan; and, since its establishment, they have confused secularism with atheism, which are two different concepts—for the former is the basis of religious pluralism in a society and the later is grounded in sheer negation of religion itself.
Another major reason for its perpetual state crisis is that, unlike India, the process of democratization in Pakistan has not been smooth. Prolonged military rules have led to a serious imbalance of civil-military power—which is now being eroded with the rise of new power centers and a national environment whereby the civilian democratic forces have started to reassert, either through mainstream and regional political parties sharing power in coalition government or mainstream political parties informally reaching a consensus for the sake of viability of the democratic system. Newer political forces with considerable public backing, especially the younger lot that constitutes half of the country’s population, are also working for a political change whose eventual outcome can only be greater democracy.
Even otherwise, it is also a fact that whenever civilian leadership heading a duly representative political order got the opportunity, it has, indeed, tried to strengthen democracy. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, for instance, gave Pakistan its first truly parliamentary Constitution in 1973. In 1997, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was able to do away with the arbitrary Presidential powers in the amended form of this Constitution since General Ziaul Haq’s military rule.
And the present PPP-led government has restored the same Constitution in its original form, ensuring provincial autonomy, judicial independence and fairer electoral process. Through three successive amendments in the Constitution—the 18th, the 19th and the 20th—it has put in place unprecedented reforms pertaining to parliamentary supremacy, provincial autonomy, judicial independence and fairer electoral process that are irreversible.
The lingering tussle between the Executive and the Judiciary appears to derail democratic governance, but even this development must be seen within the context of the grand political sift that has been underway in Pakistan in recent years. The higher judiciary has traditionally been subservient to the Executive, especially playing a leading role in legitimizing prolonged military rules under the Law of Necessity. Its increasingly assertive stance is, thus, a great departure from the past.
Given that, the recent Executive-Judiciary tension was natural, so should be its transitory destabilizing impact on democratic politics. However, as the process underpinning diffusion of state power moves forward, each organ of the state should learn to deal with each according to new rules of the game determining its respective power domain and underlying constraints.
Finally, on the external front, as Muslim world’s only nuclear weapon state, Pakistan has tremendous potential to grow. The country is geo-strategically located between resource-rich Central Asia and energy-starved South Asia, and will sooner or later act as a leading regional corridor of trade and energy. In the last over a decade, it has struggled to reverse extremism and combat terrorism—a quest that will go a long way in realizing Pakistan’s founding ideal as a progressive nation. The internal diffusion of political power and shift in foreign policy create a viable context for our promising national future.
This commentary can be accessed at weeklypulse.org