Wednesday October 27, 2021

A feeble freedom

August 21, 2021

We have just celebrated yet another Independence Day. Of course, we have seen the festivity that comes with this occasion. But we must stop and ask ourselves some questions.

Beyond the festivity, what has changed for people over the past seven decades? What are their lives like? What has the death of millions of people in the violence that followed Partition brought us? And what can we do to change the situation for the people of a country that is now very much a part of the globe and the place that we all call home. Is it what was dreamed of? What was hoped for.

As Faiz Ahmad Faiz wrote in those days soon after Partition, the freedom that we have seen in Pakistan is not quite what was hoped for. The words of the founder of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who spoke out for the rights of all people in the country to enjoy their freedoms in themselves depict this. Jinnah himself would never have wanted an extremist Islamic state in which Hindu temples were torn down, Christians forcibly converted, Muslim sects put at war against each other.

This is certainly not the Pakistan that was hoped for and changing it will not be an easy task no matter which government comes to power. There can be little doubt that even though Prime Minister Imran Khan didn't go about it in precisely the right way, he did indeed intend to do something good for this country. The fact that he has not succeeded, as inflation continues to rise and people face tougher times than any before under the IMF regime, is hardly encouraging. Neither is the degree of tension between various groups in the country and the new trend to pour out vitriolic remarks against political opponents over social media and on TV shows.

his does not depict a happy or a united country. And this is sad in the sense that we seem to have fallen lower and lower over the years, in terms of economic growth, and in terms of the ability to give our people basic resources and basic rights. Pakistan today stands at the lowest tier on many social indicators showing the health, welfare, and equity of people living in the country.

This brings us to the question of who is really free in the country we live in today. Certainly, there are groups that are not free. They include minorities, women, dissidents, and increasingly journalists or bloggers who have been picked up by unknown persons or those in Balochistan as well as the former tribal areas who have simply disappeared. These are not traits we would expect to see in a democracy. It is also telling that a parliamentarian elected to power by a group that seeks to defend the rights of Pashtun people remains in prison and that the movement created under that banner has been more or less silenced.

In a free country, in an independent country, in a country where people happily wave their national flag and look up towards it with genuine pride, we need such things not to happen.

The freedom that people lack is significant. Poor people lack the freedom to give their children a decent education. It is highly unlikely, given what we have seen till now, that the Single National Curriculum (SNC) will in any way change this. And worst still, is the fact that healthcare is denied to people because of the situation in government hospitals, with the Covid-19 pandemic exposing the degree of this deficiency. The lack of food available to families makes matters even worse, and the inflation in the price of basic commodities, as well as in fuel and energy has simply worsened life leaving fewer and fewer people able to enjoy anything that resembles freedom or happiness.

Bhutan is one of the few nations in the world that has developed a mechanism to measure national happiness. It believes that happiness comes from not building up a desire to bring consumer goods into households and instead embrace tradition, heritage, family, and community. Perhaps we should try and learn from this example and also consider why nations such as Bangladesh, created in 1971 after a bitter civil war, are now ahead of us on so many lists, including those which mark levels of literacy, population growth, and exports.

The Pakistan that was dreamt of by so many including those who gave up their lives for the country can possibly be created, but only with a dramatic change in the manner in which we allocate funds and determine national policy. This is not an easy matter. Merely singing national songs, or placing flags in our houses will not achieve this. Instead, major alterations and how we plan and how we shape our society are required. Maybe we should spend most of each 14th August thinking about how we can create a better place to live in for all our people.

We need to ensure that each and every citizen enjoys at least a decent degree of freedom – and this means not only the right to speak or write freely or to engage in peaceful activities, but also the right to dignity and respect in every walk of life no matter where he or she goes. Today this is not available to most of the citizens of the country who still seek a respectable quality of life.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.