The generally very poor state of freedoms is a direct reflection of the forced diversion from the political route the country chose for itself
In August next year Pakistan will mark its 75th year of independence. Or will it – celebrate, that is? A year from that landmark now, the scorecard for the country of the state of freedoms its citizens enjoy doesn’t quiet engender a compulsion for free-spirited celebrations.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. There are several reasons to not feel totally despondent. For one, despite the state’s authoritarianism streak, Pakistanis still fearlessly profess a democratic goal for themselves and one that, through the country’s federal parliamentary character, embraces the spirit of inclusive politics with checks and balances in the shape of a bicameral parliament that allows for Senate’s proportional regional representation in legislation to counterbalance the brute majority of the electorate of one province in the National Assembly.
For another, while scrubbing out the worst stains of four bouts of martial law that always held parliamentary politics in contempt and instead favoured the unitary governance structure that ill-suits Pakistan’s socio-political and ethno-cultural pluralisms, the people’s representatives have always struck back in the politico-legal terms to reinstate diversity and pluralism as their central identity.
Hence, the 1973 constitution authored by Pakistan’s first legislature elected under an adult franchise that has outlived all the vile ‘legal framework orders’ offered by the country’s four military dictators put together. On top of that, when push came to shove, the popular political parties put aside their internecine warfare to enact the landmark Eighteenth Amendment, which was a breathtaking menu of over 100 reform-amendments to the constitution institutionalising devolution of power and restoring the federation in the spirit that was fouled by General Musharraf’s unitary presidential system.
Yet another landmark, any way you look at it, was the successful invocation of Article 6 by a representative government and conviction of a military dictator for treason. The same judiciary that is known better for validating unconstitutional martial law partially redeemed itself by handing out a death penalty for a uniformed contemner of the constitution.
But, all this good fails to mask the actual state of freedoms practically allowed to the citizens. All key freedoms – as enumerated in the set of 23 fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution – have been eroded to varying degrees over the decades. The constitution guarantees equal rights to all its citizens but ask any Christian, Hindu or Ahmedi how that translates for them in practice. By law, the president or prime minister cannot be non-Muslims.
There are several reasons to not feel totally despondent. For one, despite the state’s authoritarianism streak, Pakistanis still fearlessly profess a democratic goal for themselves and one that, through the country’s federal parliamentary character, embraces the spirit of inclusive politics with checks and balances
Take Article 25A guaranteeing mandatory education with state funding to all children aged between 6 and 16 years. That’s the promise. But, the reality is that close to 25 million children in this age bracket have never seen the inside of a school. So, the state expects to not spend a single rupee on their education but expects them to grow up educated and skilled on their own, make lots of money, and pay taxes to it?
It’s not just education. Health, livelihood, nutrition – you name it, Pakistan fares exceptionally poorly in global rankings guaranteeing these rights. The United Nations Human Development Index – the gold standard on rankings – put Pakistan at 154 among 189 countries in its 2020 report. It even puts Pakistan the second last among the eight countries of its own neighbourhood – South Asia. On the ‘three Ps’ of inequality – power, people and policy – Pakistan fares poorly, says the UN.
Equality? The UN report actually terms Pakistan “a country of two Pakistans”. The poorest one per cent (two million) of its citizens hold less than 0.15 percent of the country’s wealth while the richest one per cent nine per cent. That means it would take 18 million of the poorest citizens to own as much as one of the one richest persons. Countries see their middle class grow but Pakistan has managed to buck the general global trend. In 2009, 42 percent of Pakistanis fell in the middle-class demographic. In 2019, only 36 percent were left. And no, they did not climb into the upper class but dipped back into the lower class. The women bear the hardest brunt in all indicators accruing from this – from high fertility to mortality to nutrition to unpaid labour to health and education indicators.
Elite capture in Pakistan – that is erected atop a regression in exercise of power and state subsidies for the poor – has never been higher in its history than today. Comprising the military establishment, bureaucracy and rich businessmen, this elite of around a million individuals enjoyed Rs 368 billion worth of specially granted privileges in subsidies in 2019, according to the UN. This is equivalent to over 40 percent of the public sector development budget for over 200 million people.
The generally very poor state of freedoms actually exercised by the average Pakistani is a direct reflection of the forced diversion from the political route the country chose for itself. The country dreamt of itself as a welfare state for the poor but morphed into a giant subsidy state for the elite.
When Pakistan was created, it inherited three colonial institutions – the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. The people, over the decades, have responded by creating three native institutions – political parties, media and citizens’ organisations – to counter the strangle-hold of the troika. While this fight is far from over, access to state resources means that the ‘colonial troika’ keeps the country in effect a holdover colonial state.
The actual state of freedoms in Pakistan today remains merely promissory in nature and procedural in effect. It is not promise alone but access to power and practice of policy that must revert to the people for universal freedoms to translate into happiness and prosperity for people. This might happen by Pakistan’s centenary in 2047 but not next year when the country turns 75. It certainly did not on August 14 this year.
The writer is a political analyst and media development specialist. He can be reached at email@example.com