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Unanswered question of independence

Was the independence of Pakistan from the British Raj in 1947 an act of de-colonization or merely a communal event? And is it any comfort or consolation to be robbed of your rights and resources by people of your own faith, colour and language than by foreign colonials before independence? In other words, is native colonialism less painful than foreign colonialism?

The question acquires importance because our inability or unwillingness to answer it has often led to confusion and conflicts in policies working at cross purposes and wasting precious time and resources which has kept the country at stand-still, while every other Asian country has been overtaking Pakistan.

In due course, this confusion has produced two deeply disturbing and divergent trends. On the one hand, the people of Pakistan occupy lowly positions in every indicator of social, economic and political empowerment in world rankings (‘Unfinished business of independence’, The News, March 6 & 8, 2021). And on the other, communalism, extremism and waves of violence have been on the rise, destabilizing society and economy.

If independence was an act of decolonization, the trajectory of laws and policies would be in the direction of the empowerment of the people in order to dismantle the layers of inequalities, discriminations and prejudices piled upon them during medieval and colonial eras and open up opportunities for them. The beginning would be made by framing a democratic constitution which would provide a mechanism to lift them out of the dungeons of under-development, spell out how the social contract between the people and the state would be honoured and implemented and the affairs of the state conducted.

But we didn’t do any of that for many years, even though Quaid-e-Azam had urged the members of the Constituent Assembly in its very first session that this was their first responsibility to fulfil. But the rulers at the helm of affairs did not see independence as an act of decolonization but only as a communal event which had propelled them to power in the new state.

Ironically, they ruled under the same colonial laws against which the whole struggle for independence was supposed to have been launched! And used the label of religion to avoid framing a democratic constitution and holding elections to give the new state its own representative government.

If the idea was that Muslim rulers should be governing the areas comprising Pakistan, then Pakistan had already existed here for centuries. In Sindh, for instance, there had been Muslim rulers for a thousand years since the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim. Similarly, in other provinces also, there had been Muslim rulers for centuries – except for short intervals in some areas.

But these Muslim regimes were not democratic; nor believed in separation of powers or equal opportunity for all people living within their territories.

Is that the model of Muslim governance we wanted to revive after the Raj had left the Subcontinent? Because that model was inherently weak and discredited and had already been defeated by a small band of foreign traders who went on conquering these regimes.

French physician Francois Bernier spent 12 years in India and had a front row seat to watch the happenings from close quarters because he was physician to Emperor Shah Jehan and princes Dara and Aurangzeb. His account of 17th Century India shows that the whole system of governance in the courts (darbars) of the emperor and the princes revolved around the interests of rich lords occupying the corridors of power in the darbars, while the conditions of the people were miserable. They would either be lining up in front of the mansions of the elite or running after them to get a ‘sifarish’ for every little petty matter they had with government functionaries; or pay bribes for that.

Look around and you will see that the 300-year-old world described by Bernier is still the fate of the vast majority of the people of Pakistan despite the fancy rhetoric we never tire of using. Which goes to show that, whatever people may have imagined, independence for the rulers (umra) of the new state was not for empowerment of the people but for their own empowerment.

And the system of governance – whatever it may say on paper – is faithfully looking after their interests as it did 300 years ago. In other words, it has remained ‘government of the few, by the few, for the few’.

But the purpose of independence is empowerment of the people. And if independence does not liberate people by dismantling the shackles of discriminations, inequalities and prejudices holding them back for centuries, what is it all about?

Colonization was immoral because of the inequalities, discriminations and exploitation embedded into its systems of governance, and so it needed to be wound up. It was illegal because it had forced itself upon people and imposed a system of governance, sustained by force or threat of force, and so needed to be wound up. And it was illegitimate because it was not a government by the consent of the people who are the owners of the state, and so it needed to be wound up.

Colonialism is a political and economic phenomenon and dismantling those political and economic barriers to people’s empowerment is the first priority of any country achieving independence from colonialism.

Colonialism is not a religious phenomenon and using it as a decoy to deny the empowerment of people has only boomeranged. If the political and economic content and character of governance remains the same, with some cosmetic changes in nomenclatures, what makes native colonialism less painful than foreign colonialism of the pre-independence era?

But native colonialism is quite cunning and uses instruments of common religion, language, culture, security – which foreign colonials could not – to create fault lines and deflect attention from its iniquitous and exploitative behavior and disempowerment of people.

So, the answer to the question seems to be that independence from the Raj in 1947 succeeded in empowering the Muslim elite to capture power in the new state, but the empowerment of the people by liberating them from the shackles of medieval and colonial legacies was denied to them by native colonialism. The bottom positions they occupy in social, economic and political empowerment in world rankings even after seven decades are proof of that denial.

And it is not just the vast majority of marginalized masses that have been losing out for the last four decades but the state of Pakistan itself; for without inaugurating the Age of Reason to unshackle people’s potential, empowering them with science and technology and protecting them with rule of law, the necessary critical mass would not be created to lift Pakistan to take its rightful seat at the high table of the international community.

The struggle for independence will remain incomplete until the empowerment of the people, not just the rulers, is achieved.

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

Email: [email protected]