Pakistan briefing: Youthful nation defying the odds

As it marks its national day, Anwar Iqbal looks at the country's past and future
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The Independent Online
CARVED out of British India in 1947, Pakistan is still struggling with its identity 50 years after its independence. Despite a strong desire to belong to the Muslim world, culturally and socially it is as much a part of the Subcontinent as it always was. The national identity of a Pakistani is also in conflict with the regional identifies of various ethnic groups that live here. Despite this, the number of Pakistanis, those who believe in a distinct identity as a Pakistani, is increasing steadily. There are large numbers of people in every province who have developed economic interests and social links with each other. Most Pakistanis believe that if given a chance their country may one day become one strong state with a common identity for all those living within its boundaries.

Although it looks unstable and weak, there are external and internal factors that help Pakistan. It has a small but vibrant middle class which believes in the country and is eager to contribute to its development. It has a bureaucracy which, despite its corruption, is well organised and disciplined. It has a strong army which, despite its involvement in politics, is still seen as a symbol of national integrity. Although the army has been involved in politics since 1958, it has not been affected by the political chaos that mars the country's democratic system. So far it has remained united under one command and there are no major rifts within its ranks.

Pakistan also has a language - Urdu - which is spoken and understood everywhere. In the beginning, the government's efforts to impose Urdu over provincial languages led to Urdu's rejection by other language groups. But during the last 50 years it has created a place for itself as the official national language of the country and also as the language of the media. Since 1985, the country has a free press which has played a key role in exposing corruption and administrative malpractice.

Although still mainly agricultural, urbanisation has been rapid in Pakistan. Old cities have grown almost 10 times since independence in 1947 and scores of new cities have come up in each of the four provinces.

The United States and other Western powers would play a key role in any major change in the region and Pakistan's disintegration can't happen without their approval. It seems that despite the economic, cultural and political crises that Pakistan faces today, it will continue to exist as an independent nation in the near future, giving Pakistanis enough time and opportunity to form an identity of their own.

The country's number one problem is that of corruption. The corruption is so widespread that it has created a parallel economy and according to some experts the illegal economy generates twice as much cash as the national economy. Influential people borrow huge sums of money from the banks and never return them. Most of them use their influence to get their debts waived. According to Dr M Yaqub, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, about 7,000 people owe more than 123 billion rupees to the banks and are unlikely to return it. "Two billion rupees are stolen every year from the government funds," says prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

The material corruption has led to moral and intellectual corruption as well. It has created a new class of educated clowns who base their claim to rule on their ability to mimic the West and not on their ability to rule. They are, as Franz Fannon says, people with black or rather brown skins and white masks. They think they are superior, not because of their intellectual achievements, but because of their resemblance to the white people. They are not willing to share their wealth with the poor.

There is no major charity organisation in the country which is financed by the rich. Most charity hospitals, orphanages, and schools were opened before independence and are now run with the government's support. The two most prominent charitable institutions - Imran Khan's Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust and the Edhi Trust - run on donations from the lower and middle-class individuals and groups.

The efforts of the rich to distance themselves from local culture further alienate the elite from the people. They send their children to schools run by western or westernised teachers, where they are encouraged only to speak English. Those who can speak any of the local languages fluently are ridiculed. They are encouraged to wear western dress, follow western manners,and eat western food. They have little interest in their religion and from the very beginning look at the West as the ideal human society. And thus, they consider themselves "honourary citizens of the West". They have little contact with the people who live around them, except with their servants, and, therefore, have little love for them. Their love for the West increases when they go there, for visit or studies. And thus, even when they sincerely try to help, it does not work.

It is this gulf between the rulers and the ruled which is eating into the system. If you look at the tall buildings and the broad boulevards of Islamabad, Karachi or Lahore, the system looks strong. It looks even stronger when you watch smartly dressed and well-armed soldiers marching up and down Islamabad's main highway during the Independence Day parade. But on the inside it is weak and hollow - and that may yet be Pakistan's fatal flaw .