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In Pakistan a state without a nation

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”; thus Cassius spoke to Brutus in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’. This truth has held through the ages. When Ahsan Iqbal, minister for interior – responsible for internal security, safety of life and property of the people, and general law and order, as indeed Pakistan’s integrity as a state and a nation – was grievously injured in an assassination attempt while addressing his home constituency, his prime area of focus and functional responsibility went up in tatters.

Each consequence has a history of events behind it which precipitate it while each consequence itself aggregates to a catastrophe. But, who in today’s Pakistan has the time to ponder. Such is the speed and scale of societal disquiet that all links between the state and the people and within people have been rendered tenuous.

The attempted murderous assault on the interior minister was by a proclaimed member of the religious TLYR (Tehreek e Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah), a party claiming the mantle to institute the finality of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). It doesn’t get more sensitive than this in religious terms. It used to be a given, a creed with the largest majority of the nation that the finality and love for the Prophet (pbuh) was an established part of our faith. We had numerous other fault-lines, between and within sects, of one strain slightly deviating from the other, but such contentions were never invoked. Only a few times in our 70-year history as an Islamic Republic was the issue ever reverted to; initially to ensure its primacy as the republic settled into its cultural denomination, and then with motives bordering on political intent. Otherwise it’s mostly been a serene existence for the bigger majority of an unhindered following of the faith.

Somewhere along the way, we messed up and initiated these groups to the power of violence. Unable to retrieve such agency of turmoil and unchecked authority, the state began retreating. That is also when our fault-lines multiplied to our current state of societal paralysis and institutional stand-off. Rewind: the first such agitation against a particular brand of religion was in 1953 in Lahore when the first martial law was imposed in the city to quell arson against that particular section of society. This found Maulana Maudoodi and his Jamaat-e-Islami a permanent presence on the political landscape.

The second such agitation in the name of Tahaffuz-e-Nabbuwat was in 1974 after the new constitution had been enacted and all Islamic provisions had been sanctified in what was essentially a socio-political contract. The fillip it enabled the religious political parties formalised their presence as the real deal. The number of religious political parties increased as a result of this formalisation and they haven’t looked back since even if their share of power and influence on the voters has been minimal.

Between 1974 and 2017 was a period of significant serenity till the newly coined TLYR found the chink in the state’s armour to establish its own power base. This happened when – in an ill-advised and ill-timed move – the government considered changes to the election oath for parliament. This unleashed and gave reason to yet another reinforced presence to a fledgling politico-religious group beyond its real political value. Ever since a truce was mediated by Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency under government direction, the state, the government and the TLYR have tended to face-off and then shy away from each subsequent showdown. This has further weakened the writ of the state.

That the group and its off-shoots have declared in unequivocal terms to counter the PML-N has meant that the party not only lost a part of its traditional base but has found another competing entity, particularly in Punjab. Importantly, those stirred to hostile action by the whole affair can include anyone from a very wide swath. It thus makes it even more complex to identify a lone wolf intending to do harm. The Faizabad Dharna by the TLYR brought to the fore the inclination among such elements to wreak unrest based only on a perception of a violation of such basic affirmation which sits at the foundation of the faith.

The blood tasted by the power of agitation in the name of religion has only endowed an even greater sense of the control such groups hold over bending the state and weak governments to their whims. The state surely appeared far weaker but as did the nation which unfortunately was held ransom at the altar of those who lorded in the name of the religion. It became a double whammy. The state was saved by the intervention of some agents of the state but the nation hasn’t recovered from some debilitating blows. Bit by bit, the nation is dissolving before wielders of tribal power – religious, sub-national, ethnic or pure tribal. This fragments its integrity as a nation in a state which depends on a cohesive congruence of all to fight the challenges it faces.

Add to the religious rebellion the language of dissent and dissonance being spoken by the politicians which only polarises the nation to opposing ends. More like war, the signs of strife are ominous. Those tasked to develop society in its conduct through ideational and intellectual grooming through word and conduct are instead at each other’s throat. The worst of it was exhibited in Karachi recently when the PPP and the PTI, the two parties likely to emerge with greater promise from the current melee chose to physically slug it out for holding an election rally at the same venue, on the same day, at the same time. It doesn’t get any more childish than that. That a life wasn’t lost was fortunate. Threatening bodily harm is routine and hate and intolerance dominate political and social discourse.

Nawaz Sharif’s rhetoric over the last couple of years is based on urging institutional confrontation. Various sects are barely keeping pretence, the politicians are feuding and institutions are in a pervasive distrust. Far worse, those assigned the responsibility to repair ruptures are at the root of such societal fracturing. While the state is barely managing to survive, the nation seems to be melting away. Whether that will also dissolve the state remains a persisting concern.

The elections might help turn the page over. In this environment of national despondency, such fledgling aspirations are indicative of the desperate times. It was with monumental effort and unmatched sacrifice that a nation was coined and a state won for it, but in a hopeless replication of Roman frivolity we are on the path to lose both. Can the elections help us survive? Probably. This remains our only hope.