This is the month in which anniversary of Pakistan’s birth is celebrated every year. In addition to the patriotic fervor displayed on national TV channels and in newspaper supplements, we also get our annual dose of articles about how Pakistan represents a dream gone sour, a promise unfulfilled and a betrayal of hope. There are those who lament that we continue to remain slaves mentally or physically despite the token independence attained six decades back. But I feel there is not much reflection on the concept of independence and the relationship between an individual’s independence in his/her life and a state’s independence in its dealings with the world and its citizens and how the latter compromises the former. Ironically, what the behavior of my state has meant to me lately is that carrying a Pakistani passport has severely restricted my freedom to travel, leading to cancellation of some of my planned foreign trips. Pakistan is one of the only 12 countries whose citizens require a visa even for transit via European or American airports. If this be the requirement only for stopping over at the airport, one can imagine the additional screenings one has to go through to visit another country. But then, that’s not an issue to concern the masses. The isolationist-glory dreams that the youth of this country are being shown by our uber-nationalist heroes; this is not likely to offer any food for introspection. It is, instead, more likely to lead to further retaliation in the shape of demands for applying similar restrictions on travellers from all the countries to Pakistan, though there are very precious few who are willing to take this risk these days.
A couple of years back, when we were approaching the completion of our internships in Pakistan, most of my colleagues landed jobs abroad; mostly in the Middle Eastern countries, but some in UK and US as well. The decline of Pakistani economy was about to start after a couple of years of aid-funded growth. The economies of Gulf countries were booming as a result of the rising oil prices and many people from Pakistan were able to find employment there. Once in a Gulf country, I met an old friend and we started discussing about all our former colleagues. He made a remark which made me think about what we had gained and given up as a result of moving overseas. He said that those of our colleagues who had gone to the UK have kind of breached their loyalty to the homeland by getting settled in a country which had once colonized us, and from which we had obtained our independence after long struggle and many sacrifices. I will not dilate upon my views about the struggle and sacrifices here, but what made me a little uncomfortable was that I could sense a flaw in this argument but couldn’t figure out how to highlight it.
Going back in time to my school years, I remember we would often be told by teachers in school, by politicians on television, and by other wise-looking personalities, how lucky we as young Pakistanis should feel that we were born in a free country. And then the line that had there been no Pakistan, we would have had no identity, made me think that our sheer existence as living creatures depended on the existence of Pakistan. The stories of how Muslims suffered discrimination in united India and could not practice their religion freely were often narrated as the rationale for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. We used to feel pity for the Indian Muslims for they continued to live in those supposedly subhuman conditions, by opting not to come to Pakistan.
My confusion grew however, when I increasingly became aware of the existence of those very same conditions in Pakistan, getting rid of which was the primary justification for its creation. The only difference was that the roles of people and communities had changed based on their respective faiths. The city I grew up in has remained a hotbed of sectarian tensions for as long as I can remember, resulting in the killings of a large number of people. Many families of the minority sect have migrated to supposedly safer cities. It was a perception that since loyalties are essentially based on faith, rather than culture, language or centuries of living together, the natural loyalties of minority sects cannot lie with the state of Pakistan, as they have other countries to identify themselves with. It wasn’t until much later that I learnt, as if a closely-guarded secret had been revealed, that the person credited with founding Pakistan was himself from a minority sect. As for discrimination against minorities, while television dramas showed how, prior to Partition, hardcore Hindus refused to drink from a glass touched by a Muslim, similar attitude was not uncommon toward the tiny Christian minority and less commonly between Shias and Sunnis too in the liberated Pakistan.
As social media became common, and I found myself energetically defending my country’s official line during discussions with similarly overzealous members from India, I learnt that Indian Muslims were as much patriotic to their country as anyone could be. The stories of the miserable condition of Indian Muslims also seemed to be losing credibility, notwithstanding the riots of Gujarat, as I began to notice the proud nationalist feelings among their citizens of all creeds. As a matter of principle, I found this somehow irreconcilable with the idea of Pakistan, which was created to provide safer and better environment for the Muslim minority of India to flourish in their material and religious lives. To the contrary, Indian Muslims insisted they lived happily in their own country and displayed no signs of willingness to join us in the better and purer land.
Having experienced more freedom outside my ‘free’ country to say and do things as I wish than inside it, without harming another soul of course, questions arose in my mind whether the independence of my country has come at the cost of my individual freedom. For what is independence if not the right to be treated equally irrespective of one’s creed or background, plus having the liberty to exercise one’s right to practice one’s faith and free speech, without it getting monopolized by majority sects or communities. Not to speak of such monopolies getting a legal cover by from the state. The irony is colossal for this country was created essentially to protect the rights of a minority and it has ended up institutionalizing discrimination against minorities.
As for my friend who criticized our colleagues who moved to the UK as less loyal to Pakistan, I only realized that for many of my countrymen, independence is more about the religion and ethnicity of whoever rules us, than the freedom we get to exercise in our actions and choices. If the majority of a country’s citizens, of their own free will, approve of state’s infringement of individual’s freedoms and curtailment of minorities’ rights, what would we call such a state? Independent or a usurper of independence?
Published in the Viewpoint Online on August 19, 2011