IT takes an outsider to point out the anger within us. Last week, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, spoke at an event, arguing that our anger prevents us from telling the good story about Pakistan to the world.
It reminded me of an interaction that took place nearly 20 years ago. Back in 2000, a soft-spoken Indian professor from Delhi had asked why the Pakistani people were always so pessimistic about their country — present and future — despite the fact that till the 1990s, Pakistan had always enjoyed better social and economic indicators (including a higher growth rate) than India. It was a question I had no answer to. The hostile questions about Kargil and military rule were easier to answer during that trip to India than this gentle insight and a sense of bewilderment about our state of being.
But since that morning in New Delhi, there have been so many moments when the professor’s question has come back to mind. Countless memories that came spilling out echoed what former ambassador Munter said. Some as clear as the question asked by the Indian professor; some a little less sharp. But each one testifies to our despair, anger or lack of confidence in what is known as Pakistan.
We have been living in an age of anger, decades before Pankaj Mishra wrote about it.
Fast forward from 2000 to the last months of 2007 or the beginning of 2008: a faded memory, I am unsure of the exact month, but it was during the days of that heady yet difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy. Musharraf was fighting for his survival. Benazir Bhutto and the Sharifs were clawing their way back to relevance (followed by the devastating assassination of the former). A lawyers’ movement had caught Pakistan’s imagination. And there were terrorist attacks galore.
In the midst of these trying yet hopeful times, an op-ed had discussed Pakistan as a possible failed state. I was told that the writer had gotten a call from an amused friend in Afghanistan who said that despite all that had happened in and to Afghanistan, no Afghan would ever call his country a ‘failed state’.
We, of course, have used this term so often for the country that many of us believe it is a failed state — despite the term’s problematic origins as one used by Washington to describe countries it ‘disapproved’ of rather than an empirically established concept.
Then there are jumbled up memories of various track II dialogues. Each such seminar or conference is coupled with at least one discussion (on the sidelines) of how the Indians (and more recently the Afghans) present a united stand unlike Pakistanis. There is always a sense of frustration at how we end up helping ‘their’ cause rather than supporting our interest.
Why do we do this, as the professor asked?
Perhaps it stems from our long bouts of dictatorships. Denied their due and rightful say in policymaking has made entire swathes of the populace angry, hostile and critical of the state. They are angry at being left out: it’s an anger that is accompanied by a sense of helplessness at the direction that the country and society have taken. And in recent times, too, there is a sense of outrage because course correction (if there is any in their opinion) has not included their input. Hence, many refuse to believe that there has been any course correction, or criticise it for moving too slowly.
This is why perhaps the anger is most palpable when it comes to foreign policy, especially relations with India, and the radicalism that has engulfed state and society.
Being denied a voice, there is little left to do but express rage at the state, what it has come to stand for and to also conclude that there can be little hope for the future. (Pakistan has not just been at the crossroads ever since I can remember, it has also forever been in danger of being torn apart).
The rage has gotten worse post-2008, for the hope that accompanied the transition then has turned bitter. We thought that the worst was over, that ‘true’ democracy had returned to Pakistan and politicians would now rule — fixing all that had gone wrong. The 10 years of exile and powerlessness had also given the politicos a sheen of competence and maturity. But it was yet another shab gazida sahar (night-bitten dawn).
Ten years later, the anger has grown for it seems that decision making was never transferred. But because the hope this time was greater, so has the rage been too. And perhaps because the urban middle class fought for this transition in greater numbers than before, the disappointment is greater. They are angry for they cannot see the change they had fought for or protested against.
The judiciary turned out to have feet of clay. The military didn’t really share as much as they had promised. And the politicians didn’t deliver the reform or show any inclination for democratic norms once in power. And we continue to rail, against all of them or the one we had placed most hope in, or the one we hated most.
In addition, the rage has turned into hatred of the institution that has disappointed us the most. Indeed, the anger is expressed with malicious glee at times: the Sahiwal incident is a case in point, as was the controversial statement by a former high court judge, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, or any terrorist attack which reveals chinks in the armour of the security forces. And, of course, the various JITs revealing the shenanigans of our political ruling class.
It is as if we have no option but to express our rage, so all energy is poured into it.
But expressing outrage, however cathartic it may be, is not a strategy, which is what Cameron Munter was trying to say.