It is immensely ironic that around the world the former colonies of the European imperialists celebrate their independence every year. Nations rejoice their purported freedoms while they govern themselves within the very state machinery they have inherited from their colonial masters.
This year, similarly, Pakistan marks its 73rd Independence Day. A basic analysis often brings us to the conclusion that our laws still carry the traces of our colonial past. The lived experience of Pakistani society contrasts the vivid green and white of official celebrations as it mourns in its post-colonial misery.
Hence, it should come as no surprise when politically conscious Pakistanis call out the “colonial hangover” or legacy of the British Raj when faced with cultural issues such as colourism, racism and inferiority complexes deeply embedded in South Asian society. In fact, the very systems of rule and governance in Pakistan, like other former colonies, reflect some of the glaring features of this colonial hangover. These include paranoid securitization and the adoption of a free market under capitalism. The former has resulted in immense hatred and “othering” of neighbouring populations while the latter has devastated the economic well-being of the country’s people. There is no particular political organisation or individual to be blamed for these consequences: it is the shared tragedy of a post-colonial world.
It would be dangerously unwise to overlook this modern reality and its social, cultural, political and economic consequences. In Pakistan, it has led to the emergence of a political project to manufacture a singular identity for a diverse populace that has carved out indelible divisive lines between tribes, castes, religions, sects, ethnicities and languages. Excluded from the manufactured mainstream identity, marginalised communities now find themselves to be stripped of all rights and freedoms. People belonging to minority faiths live under the constant threat of targeted killings, forced conversions, child marriages and social immobility. School books have been turned into vessels of creating and disseminating dominant historical and religious narratives that consequently foster hatred and bigotry on a generational level. Ethnic and linguistic diversity is washed down, erased and suppressed in the name of national unity. Ayesha Jalal, a brilliant historian of South Asia, rightfully deems this as selective amnesia of (mis)representing Pakistani-ness in Pakistan. Such deliberate forgetting is not discreet and must be resisted.
The country faces pressing issues of brutal censorship as intellectual and philosophical inquiry is repeatedly shunned under the garb of blasphemy charges and critical thinking is blacklisted from educational institutions to maintain the hegemonic status-quo. The individual and collective imaginations of Pakistanis have been deliberately limited and repressed. This process has been strengthening and reproducing itself for decades. Partha Chatterjee, a post-colonial political scientist across the border, would rightfully and passionately describe this as the colonisation of our freedom to imagine. It is here that lies our post-colonial misery.
The question is not whether to celebrate this inherited historical misery or not. The crucial inquiry is to reflect on the socio-economic conditions of the communities inhabiting this land. Here I beg the following questions: if azaadi means liberation of the mind and body in the social, cultural and political facets of life then can we really declare ourselves to be azaad? When press reports are censored and information is kept from the public eye, is your freedom to information and due judgement not hindered? When academia is being instrumentalised to create dominant narratives and shunning critical scientific inquiry, is your mind truly free? When people of minority faiths are targeted and killed for merely existing, is the consciousness of society free? When sexual harassment does not meet due process and gender becomes a debate for apathetic distant observers, are our bodies free to move in the domain of the public and private?
Habib Jalib, a revolutionary poet, passionately captures the pain of oppression in Pakistan in his poem “Bagiya Lahoo Luhan” (The Garden is a Bloody Mess):
“Dasti hain suraj ki kirnen chand jalaye jaan
Pag pag maut ke gehre saye jeewan maut saman
Charon ore hawa phirti hai le kar teer Kaman
Bagiya lahoo luhan”
(The rays of the sun, they sting
Moonbeams are a killing field, no less
Deep shadows of death hover at every step
Life wears a skull and bone dress
All around the air is on prowl
With bows and arrows, in full harness
The garden is a bloody mess)
The garden surely is a bloody mess and begs us to rethink what it means to be azaad in this land whose inhabitants have been colonised generation after generation and are now entrapped in a spiral of condemning the intellectual, literary, cultural, social, economic and artistic imaginations of its people. Our minds remain colonised, first by foreign oppression and now by indigenous participants in the structures of power. Under the guise of a shallow azaadi, mortal gods within state and society practice authority over our bodies to protect their idea of a nation. But the people of the nation remain unprotected. We are caught up in debates about the original vision of figures like Jinnah, while our freedoms to rethink and advance our own imaginations for the nation have been dismantled. Therefore, the resistance to achieve people’s independence must not be treated as an isolated period in history preceding and concluding in August 1947, but better seen as a continuing and evolving process that is currently relevant.
Here I leave you with the poem “Subh-e-Azaadi” (Dawn of Independence) by the country’s most celebrated poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who never severed his progressive and critical imagination to question tyranny and express disappointment in a post-independence Pakistan, even in the face of exile. Perhaps we can keep the spirit of such empathetic questioning alive.
“Ye daagh ujala, ye shab gazeeda seher
Wo intezaar tha jiska ye wo seher tau nahi
Ye wo seher tau nahin, jis ki arzu le kar
Chaley thay yaar ke mil jaye gi kahin na kahin
Falak ke dasht mein taaron ki aakhri manzil
Kahin tau hoga shab-e sust mauj ka saahil
Kahin tau ja ke rukay ga safeena-e gham-e dil.”
(This stained light, this night-bitten dawn;
This is not that long-awaited day break;
This is not the dawn in whose longing,
We set out believing we would find, somewhere,
In heaven’s wide void,
The stars’ final resting place;
Somewhere the shore of night’s slow-washing tide;
Somewhere, an anchor for the ship of heartache.)