It has been long, but I can sense it again. After years of despair, I feel optimistic, even bullish, about Pakistan.
Why a sudden change in perspective, you may ask. It’s all about the context.
The recent ruthless murders of innocent civilians in Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris; the harassment of public intellectuals and artists in India; the murders of bloggers in Bangladesh suggest that these are hard times all around.
But, why then the optimism?
Recent developments in India have something to do with it. A climate of fear and intimidation, fostered by the ruling BJP, has made me realise that even during the darkest days of late General Zia’s dictatorial regime, labour leaders, poets, politicians, and the left-leaning intellectuals were not afraid. General Zia closed down dissenting publications because he failed to intimidate them otherwise.
It's not the same in India. It pains me to see that a cultural shift is taking place where even the intellectuals are hesitant to express their opinions. Many have strong words to say about the state of their nation, but only off-the-record.
A rising tide of intolerance can also be witnessed in Bangladesh where intolerant individuals and mobs have hacked dissenting bloggers to death. Even publishers are not safe, Faisal Arefin Deepan was murdered in November.
So, why am I bullish on Pakistan?
Could it be that I am deliberately ignoring evidence of intolerance, press censorship, and violence? Or that there has been a shift in the state of affairs in Pakistan?
I present my case below.
Let’s start with the terrorist violence that until recently was crippling Pakistan’s economy and society. I believe that the numbers suggest a significant decline in violence.
While we can debate what led to the decline, we cannot dispute that the frequency and scale of violence have significantly dissipated.
According to the data maintained by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, I see a 40 per cent decline in terrorism-related civilian deaths from January to October in 2015 than for the same period in 2014.
How can one ignore that for the first time since 2007, terrorism-related civilian deaths between January and October are under 1,000. I, for one, believe that the 837 who lost their lives by October 2015 are 837 too many. But I cannot help notice the tide turning.
Also read: Why is good news not good enough for Pakistanis?
There are other encouraging signs hidden in the data. In 2013, the security situation had deteriorated to such extent that nine civilians died for every five dead alleged terrorists. That equation has reversed in 2015 where 2.6 alleged terrorists have died for every civilian fatality.
Two years ago, I was receiving emails from asylum seekers. Now, I am receiving requests to serve on the examination committees for doctoral dissertations or participate in development forums.
Senior Pakistani bureaucrats are writing to me, seeking help in establishing new avenues to train the Pakistani youth in data science and analytics.
For the first time in decades, the governments are building public transit for the middle class and low-income households. Metro buses in Lahore and Rawalpindi are running at capacity, providing a decent and affordable commute to those who cannot afford private modes of travel.
Of course, the utility of bus transit is lost on those who have never ridden a local bus. Those riding cars complain of how much it has cost to build state-of-the-art bus transit service. They never complain about the vast network of highways and roads built from the same public purse for them to drive their cars around.
The clean, efficient, and modern public transit stations in Rawalpindi and Lahore are indicative of a larger shift in the public sector’s attitude and approach towards human development. What I see is a deliberate attempt to invest in what is public in our society.
We should ask for more of it and demand the same in public health and public education rather than opposing the investments in public transit.
Also read: Spending for education to be doubled by 2018
I see tremendous work being done in poverty alleviation in rural areas. The National Rural Support Program (NRSP) is breaking new grounds with its innovations in assisting the very poor.
The NRSP has bundled innovative health insurance schemes with its microfinance programs to provide a cushion to the households who would have no other financial recourse if the primary bread earner is injured or falls ill.
I continue to be amazed by the Anjuman Samajhi Behbood (ASB), which has brought clean water and sanitation to thousands of low-income households in Pakistan. Their clean water initiative, Changa Pani Programme enables communities to self-build and self-finance the water supply and sanitation schemes. Municipal and provincial governments are partnering with the Anjuman to introduce the same initiatives in other low-income communities.
Pakistanis continue to guard their freedoms even after sustaining terrorist violence for decades.
Recently, the Pew Research Centre polled individuals in select countries on how important it was for the people to express themselves without fear or government censorship. Eighty-four per cent of Pakistanis thought that to be important compared to 76 per cent of Indians and Jordanians.
A reflection of the past
While I hear complaints about press censorship in Pakistan, I also see dozens of news channels serving round-the-clock political commentary. I am deeply saddened by the recent death of my former colleague and journalist, Haider Rizvi. I do, however, realise that even being the most rebellious of all the journalists of my generation, he chose to return to Pakistan and died not at the hands of a militant or intelligence organisation, but from somewhat natural causes.
I often reminisce about the bygone days of harmony in Pakistan. I saw a reflection of the same in the past few months on my recent visits.
I am reminded of my parents’ funerals this fall where family and friends, Shias and Sunnis, civilians and army officers, and my parents’ former students, many of whom are Christians and Hindus, came to grieve with us as if we were all one family.
On the streets of Rawalpindi, I saw books by Malcolm Gladwell and Edward Said being sold in the Sunday used-books markets. I witnessed the youth voluntarily patrolling streets at night to keep their neighbourhoods safe.
I once knew a Pakistan like this. And, I see it rising again.
To value the progress of Pakistani Muslims, we should look at the demographics of pre-1947. – Photo courtesy Citizens Archive of Pakistan
Come August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day, there is nothing but doom and gloom all around, or at least that’s what the media would have us believe. One e-mail heading reads “Division of Pakistan is about to start by 14th August 2011.” Such pessimism is absolutely uncalled for and the news of Pakistan’s demise is totally immature.
Pakistan has been in an enormous mess for a long time and no one knows how to get out of this morass. Shortages, socio-political anarchy, sickening economy, the war on terror and urban terrorism are all prevalent in the country. And, yet every Pakistani dreams that by now the country should have been like Europe, America or at least at the level of India and China. Alas, Pakistan is not there but is in a position that its present citizens could not have imagined to be in before 1947. To appreciate a substantial progress of Pakistan, we need a historical perspective.
To value the progress of Pakistani Muslims, we should look at the demographics of pre-1947. Without burdening the reader with too many statistics and numbers, it can be said that 99 per cent of the Muslims of present Pakistan were peasants, artisans, labourers or attached to lowly professions. Yes, of course there were Muslim feudals all around, but they did not represent the vast majority. Other than the army and police, Muslims were almost negligible in business, services, professional classes, bureaucracy or education. All the non-agricultural sectors were completely monopolised by Hindus. This was not from the British era, rather, it was the pattern for the entire Muslim era as well.
Lahore was the main city in the areas now included in Pakistan and is now the second most populous city. One should imagine the Muslims of Lahore of that that era and compare it with the present one. Back then, every economic sector, from banking to education, was owned and run by Hindus only. Muslims had only couple of shops in Anarkali and Mall Road and only two families of note, headed by Ch. Muhammad Shafi and Nawab Muzaffar Qazalbash. In Jhutha Sach (The False Truth, 1958–1960), novelist Yashpal encapsules the status of Muslims in a dialogue between two Hindu ladies talking to each other about seeing a Muslim vegetable vendor in the inner city, one says, “these are the people who will rule us in Pakistan?”
The division of Punjab was very tragic and probably unfair to non-Muslims who had built the city with blood and sweat but watched the downtrodden become the masters of the city in this historical twist. Furthermore, despite all daunting challenges for Pakistan, the most fertile part of north India if not the entire subcontinent became part of Pakistan. With huge surplus production in agriculture it could provide capital for industries. It was not fair to the peasantry to transfer their surplus to budding industrial class but this is how it happened.
Now, not only does Lahore enjoy a rich and midlde class of Muslims along with the poor, but the industrial areas are stretched in every direction up to Sheikhupura, Kasoor and Bhai Phairo to the south. If the textile industry of Faisalabad, along with other industries in entire Pakistan is included, poor peasants, artisans and laboring classes of pre-1947 era have done a marvelous job just in 60 some years. Pakistan-Punjab, as compared to its eastern part in India, has much more industry on a per capita basis. Furthermore, Punjab has still remained the bread basket of Pakistan and Sindh has progressed in fruit production. Other provinces have done their own share in the economic sectors in which they have comparative advantage.
India and China have certainly done better than Pakistan in most areas. However examined in a historical perspective, both countries had inherent advantages over Pakistan. China had been the world leader in industrial production for 1800 years, except the last five to six hundred years.
Furthermore, the Indian bourgeoisie industrial/entrepreneurial classes were far more mature than the peasantry and feudals of Pakistan. Though urban Hindu migrants to India were a burden for that country for some time, but they were still skilled and intellectually advanced. And, if human capital is extremely important in socio-economic growth then Indian gained at the expense of Pakistan because of this devastating migration. Despite all the advantages India had, if one looks at living conditions in the entire northern region of the subcontinent, its Pakistani counter-part has done equally well if not better.
As far as the breaking up of Pakistan is concerned, one can cynically repeat what Faiz Ahmed Faid had once said “My fear is that this country will go on like this.” On a serious note, the disintegration of Pakistan does not seem to be on the agenda of history. Basically, most ethnicities have developed huge stakes in united Pakistan. Pashtuns from KP and Balochistan have developed economic interest in every big city of the country. They even monopolize certain sectors of the economy in Punjab and Sindh. Why would they wish Pakistan broken to leave them to struggle where they cannot find jobs and markets in which to sell their products? Sindhis, despite the protestations, are much better off within Pakistan rather than being a small country. This is why no nationalist Sindhi political party has ever won the elections.
It is true that at present Pakistan seems to be in a very fragile situation as we all know. It is also true that Pakistan has great potential, if it was governed properly. But this is a big “IF” because history cannot be explained with “if this had happened then that would happen.” Instead history is a series of interconnected events where we say that “A led to B.” Pakistan was a peasant country in 1947 and it had to go through all these phases of socio-economic evolution. I feel realistically optimistimistic about Pakistan’s future: the actions of independent judiciary are one indicator to be followed by other institutions. The demise of present ruling parties and elite is inevitably giving birth to new forces. Sit tight and just watch the horizon of the next 10 to 20 years, not just from this election to next election.
Dr. Manzur Ejaz is a poet, author, a political commentator and a cultural activist. He is a Doctor of Economics and currently lives in Washington DC.