On the myth of independence

July 15, 2020

The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank.The myth of independence from colonialism has been shattered in many developing countries by recurring instability of...

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The writer designed the Board of Investment and the First Women’s Bank.

The myth of independence from colonialism has been shattered in many developing countries by recurring instability of governments and continuing poverty, illiteracy and indignities of daily life, even after decades of securing independence.

The reason that the fruits of independence and democracy have not reached the people in countries like Pakistan is that people have been hit with a double- whammy. The struggle for independence was waged in the name of the people and securing their democratic rights. But the vacuum created by the departure of foreign colonialists was filled by the stalwarts of the local medieval culture of entitlements, special privileges and social and structural inequalities – nawabs, sardars and their associates in the religious lobby.

As they took control of the new state, they took no measures to undo the scars of over a century of colonialism. Instead, they indigenized these scars by continuing to rule under colonial laws and also gave a new lease of life to a historically discriminatory culture of governance, which had already been defeated in the Subcontinent.

The myth of independence lay in the fact that the independence amounted to merely a change in the optics. The only change that occurred was in the faith and in the colour of the skin, between the old and the new rulers, while the content and character of governance remained the same.

This often happened in countries where the leading political party at the time of independence was largely controlled by the champions of such traditional and archaic values of discriminatory and unequal treatment of people. The problem was further compounded in the case of Pakistan, because the father of the nation, who came from a middle class trading community and believed in ‘rule of law’ and ‘equal treatment and equal opportunities’ for all as guiding principles of the new state, barely lived for a year after independence and could not see these values incorporated into systems of governance.

As subsequent events showed, many stalwarts occupying powerful positions in the main political party and the government he had installed were steeped in feudal values of entitlements, special privileges, unequal treatment and rent-seeking. They had joined him when it became clear that Muslims across the Subcontinent followed no one else but him, and turned their back on his principles of governance of the new state after his passing away. They pursued their own class interests and gave new lease of life to medieval governance in the new state of Pakistan.

In his most important address to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947, where he unfolded the road map for the new state, Quaid-e-Azam told its members ‘your first responsibility is to frame a constitution for the new state’. Instead, they took nine years to frame the constitution.

He wanted to permanently remove the scars and inequities of colonialism through constitutional provisions, inter-alia ‘rule of law’ and ‘equal treatment and equal opportunities’ for all. Instead, they continued to rule the country under the arbitrary, authoritarian and undemocratic colonial law of 1935 and deepened these scars.

There is a whole discipline of knowledge of how systems influence behaviour of people as well as institutions. Behaviour enforced in formative years shapes the future of individuals as well as countries. Nine years under a law meant to rule a colony, compounded with an archaic culture of governance, laid the foundations of arbitrary, authoritative and discriminatory behaviour of institutions and musical chairs at high state positions and nurtured a culture of nepotism, cronyism and corruption for which Pakistan has had to pay dearly.

Medievalism was a powerful force in history and held sway for centuries all over the world. But values like rule of law, equal treatment, equal opportunities and accountability were alien to its ethos.

The assault on dismantling its deeply entrenched social, economic and political power started in Europe with Renaissance and Enlightenment. The power of ideas like the social contract, human rights, democracy, distinction between state and government, separation of powers and no-power-without-accountability laid the intellectual groundwork for weakening medievalism. The final assault against it was led by the powers generated by two tectonic events of the second half of the 18th century – the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. In the face of the power of knowledge, skills and organization of this emerging world, the medieval age crumbled along with its values systems and structures and was overrun during the last two centuries resulting in colonization of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

One way to look at the colonization of the Subcontinent is as a consequence of the imbalance in the power of knowledge, skills and organization between the rich but weak and decadent medieval world and the empowered, skilled and advancing forces of the modern era. It is this disequilibrium between the medieval and the modern that created grounds for colonization of the former and exploitation of their resources and had little to do with religion or colour of the skin. History has enough examples to tell us that people of the same faith and colour have used shades of colonialism to exercise control over the resources of their brethren in faith and colour in other countries.

The purpose of this background is to show that medievalism which was historically a discredited system of governance was given a new lease of life in Pakistan. Nepotism, cronyism, discriminations, unequal treatment and the belief that economic opportunities are special preserve of the rulers are features of the medieval culture which has been on display in Pakistan for several decades.

History knows two ways of dislodging it. The peaceful way was by industrialization of the economy which erodes its social and economic base by creating new sources of wealth and power. The other was the violent method of the French Revolution which swept everything away in a big explosion of rage of the people. Some developing countries that became independent after WW2 showed the wisdom of not reviving medievalism after getting rid of colonialism. Either at the beginning or uprooting it at a later stage under a powerful reformist leader. Both categories of countries now occupy positions at the high table of power and prosperity in the international community.

There is a third category of countries where the double-whammy of colonialism and medievalism remains entrenched. These countries have been plundered in abundance while fruits of independence and democracy remain a mirage for people even after 200 years of independence. Every attempt at reforming the deep-rooted medieval culture in Pakistan is met with the cynicism of: why bother? Because nobody will bell the cat of discriminations, entitlements, special privileges and unequal treatment. In other words, we are happy having already created an Orwellian society where although all animals are equal, ‘some animals are more equal than others’.

But we may be forgetting the lessons of history. People may be weak but history is powerful. The cause and effect relationship is immutable and those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Email: smshahalum.mit.edu

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