Ever since its founding in 1947 from the ashes of the worst communal riots ever in South Asia, Pakistan has lunged from crisis to crisis, natural and man-made. Devastating earthquakes, biblical floods, mindless violence, sickening levels of corruption – Pakistan and Pakistanis have seen it all. But none of that havoc compares to the state they find themselves in today. At the crossroads, literally. Not that all modern nations have had a cakewalk.
Before England rose to great heights in the 1700s, conquering lands from the East to the West, unstoppably, it suffered the throes of a long and bloody civil war. After nine years, a King’s execution, another King’s exile, and the death of over 85,000 out of its 5.5 million, the civil war was won by those supporting democracy and democratic institutions, and their victory established the ascendancy of Parliament, and the lasting reality that the Monarch could govern without Parliament’s approval, although this took another 36 years to get legalised. England never looked back. In less than a hundred years, England had the world at its feet.
Long before the United States achieved pre-eminence among the world’s nations, it was home to the world’s largest slave population. Black slaves, taken forcibly from the depths of Western Africa, and shipped in inhuman conditions to America to work in the tobacco and cotton fields of the fast-developing and fast-growing America, were the backbone of the economy of the United States. As the railroad travelled across America, and as the American government bought off large swathes of land to the West, reaching the Pacific in the early 19th century, slavery was rampant, and an almost indispensable part of American life. That was to change with the arrival of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 as the anti-slavery President, who promptly called for an end to slavery in all its forms. The Southern Part of America declared secession, calling itself the Confederate States, and the American Civil War broke out. Five years, after the death of 620,000 men, out of a total of 31.2 million, the United States Army won. Abraham Lincoln had ended slavery, America had paid the price, but it was never to look back. In 1884, America overtook the UK as the world’s largest economy, and shortly thereafter, became the world’s richest country, a position it has held ever since. The USA was to win two great World Wars later, fight the Chinese and Koreans to an armistice in 1953, and take over as the predominant world superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
History of great nations is replete with stories of trying times, when they have been called upon to take tough decisions, to stand by their founding and uniting principles. Be it Churchill’s famous call in 1941, calling for the British to fight, telling them that history should judge them by saying that, ‘this was their finest hour,’ or the storming of the Bastille in France on July 14, 1789, which set in motion the events of the French Revolution, history has seen extra-ordinary moments coerce the ordinary into doing the extra-ordinary and truly wondrous.
Pakistan is at one such moment.
India is about to elect a ‘Hindu Nationalist’ leader as its Prime Minister, who sees no contradiction in converting India into a ‘Hindu nation,’ at the cost of the minorities within India. Bangladesh, after years of strife, has snuffed out the Islamist opposition, sending the leaders to the gallows one by one. It is on the path to ‘Secularism.’ Sri Lanka paid the price for its fight for unity, by sacrificing millions of its soldiers and innocent civilians in the war against the Tamil Tigers, but refused to give in. The war ended in 2009.
Whither Pakistan? By calling for talks with the Taliban, who have demonstrated the ability to interpret Islamic scriptures the way it suits them and their politics the most, who have brought the nation of Pakistan disrepute, shame, and thousands of graves, and nothing by way of religious enlightenment, the Pakistani government has shown itself to be weak, indecisive and easily scared. The choice has to be made. Is Islam just about a singular interpretation of religious scriptures, a uniform dress code, an external exhibition of virtuousness and piety? Is it justified to tear apart the only nation since Madina, 1435 years ago, to be established as a homeland for Muslims, where Muslims could live in peace and harmony without the fear that had accompanied them for centuries under foreign rule? Is it justified to draw lines to divide the one large Ummah of Muslims, all of whom turn to Makkah, and pray to Allah alone, and none else? Is it justified to kill a Muslim at all, for no fault of his?
Sadly, Pakistan has yet to find answers to these questions. It can put them off, and cease to exist.