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‘I am a light tower, your call!’

This urban legend is told in many ways, but here is, hopefully, a useful summary. A battleship, moving in the fog, notices light immediately ahead. After inquiries, the captain concludes that they are on a collision course. He initiates contact, telling the other side to change path by 20 degrees. The other side instead tells the captain to change his course.

To which the increasingly irritated captain says, “I am a senior captain, I ask you to change course!” “I am a seaman, second class. You need to change course at once”, comes the reply.

Infuriated, the captain says, “I am a battleship. Change course!”

Without pause, the seaman coldly retorts, “I am a light tower, your call”.

This month Pakistan completes its 75th year of existence. And maybe this is a good time to reflect on the question of direction. Recognizing that I am speaking in broad brushstrokes, I will focus on three relationships of the state to gain a sense of the historical trajectory of the state and where it stands today — the state’s relationship with the citizen, the relationship between state institutions, and the country’s relationship with the world outside its boundaries.

For the first, the state of Pakistan, it appears, has decided that it not only wishes to have a certain type of relationship with its citizenry, but more intriguingly, it has also decided to create, or at least prefer, a certain type of citizen. Using education and law as instruments in a social engineering project, the state has sought to produce, at least ideologically, a uniform mass of people who uncritically and often unjustifiably assume the notion of their own moral superiority and historical exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, such a population is easily susceptible to believing whatever untruths they are imparted so long as they are consistent with their original worldview.

And then the state established a relationship with this citizenry that puts different values on people depending on what identity they carry. The most painful example of this that comes to mind is when I recently spoke with a group of elders from the erstwhile tribal areas where one of them pointed at the box of tissues on the table saying, ‘this is what we are to this state.’

The tribal areas are an obvious example of such a hierarchy of value of citizenship but needless to say they are not the only one. Any historian worth their salt would tell you that it is a colonial practice that if you happened to be at the periphery, at the edges of the state, geographically, ethnically, and ideologically, the state would rather patronize the powerful among you than to deal with you like a citizen. But that is what somehow continues to define the state’s relationship with most of its subjects.

Political scientists often describe Pakistan’s political system in terms of the second type of relationship — inter-institutional imbalance and disregard for specialized roles. Aided by other institutions, one institution’s political adventurism and meddling is the most recognizable and consistent trend of the system. During the past more than a decade now, the other main institution has also started to get involved in affairs that should traditionally be the exclusive domain of parliament, or should best be left to the judgement of the people.

If one institution believes that it owns the right to define what is in national interest, the other believes it can determine what is constitutional and legal. To what end? This all leads to weakening the public trust in the system and eating away at the very fabric of what makes a rule of law society.

Pakistan’s third type of relationship is rooted in and made complicated by the first two types of relationships. For instance, whereas Pakistan has historically been one of the largest recipients of Western economic aid, especially that coming from the US, it also has one of the highest levels of anti-Americanism; in 2012, a Pew survey revealed that three-quarters of the country’s population deemed the United States an enemy of Pakistan. And this contradiction is only one dimension of the issue. Similarly, our inability to inculcate and develop relations with India beyond those based in constant animosity puts strain on our resources and is a cause for constant diplomatic difficulties.

Indian governments, especially the current one, have not made it easy for us to achieve lasting peace. But we cannot deny that over the past 75 years, opportunities for peace have been presented and our response in the final count has been defined by a sense of perennial mistrust.

I recognize the sombre tone of this piece at a time of our history when we are supposed to reflect on our great achievements — on how against the odds, the state survived; how, in many ways, our people live better lives than they did when we started; on the nuclear weapon and the motorways. But I write this in recognition that Pakistan could be so much more.

There are many places we can start. But I propose that we start by allowing the growth of a citizenry that is diverse and pluralistic. A population that has the ability to think for itself. We need to teach our children new stories and myths — myths that celebrate difference, myths that celebrate the common person.

On this 75th birthday, there seems to be a lot of dismay — the political turmoil, the danger of economic meltdown, and the rising spectre of militant violence. The enduring myth suggests that we will sail through this. But if we refuse to change course, I am afraid we will continue to run into light towers.

Dr Aamer Raza, "‘I am a light tower, your call!’," The News. 2022-08-15.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political turmoil , Political system , Economy , Militants , diplomatic , Pakistan