The new Pakistani nationalism - Mosharraf Zaidi - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered less than three weeks ago. He was as proud and patriotic a Pakistani as there was, and his commitment to the Constitution, to the rule of law, and to the way Pakistan should be was palpable. I had several chance encounters with Bhatti, and one reasonably long sitting over dinner. He was the furthest thing possible from an irresponsible, fiery blowhard. His passion, and his religious conviction ran deep, but it was measured and packaged in the most elegant way. Bhatti may have been a vocal advocate for the Christian community, but he was much more than that. He was a good, proud and brave Pakistani. A nationalist, if there ever was one.

The new Pakistani nationalist is an ever increasingly more complex and sophisticated creature. The sacrifices of brave Pakistanis like Bhatti are helping transform what it means to be a good, proud and patriotic Pakistani. The pile of bodies that is accumulating owing to lawlessness and hatred in Pakistan is rightly a source of anger and bitterness among Pakistanis who are tired of this parade of violence. Yet, because of the pressures that greater transparency, a wider dissemination of information and a smaller, more intimate world impose, that pile of bodies is changing Pakistan. Slowly, but surely, it is shifting power away from dark and invisible sources of defining what makes a good Pakistani. Instead, the power to define things is changing, opening up, and democratising. The days of a free ride for self-appointed guardians of the national interest being the sole definers of nationalist virtue are over.

No better case can be made for this slow but unstoppable glacier of transparency and accountability than the Raymond Davis case. Davis was among hundreds of American soldiers and mercenaries deployed to Pakistan to conduct a covert war against violent extremists. These covert warriors are not in Pakistan without the consent of the highest powers in the country (primarily military, but also civilian). Not everybody in the ISI is necessarily proud of having to facilitate this covert war, but working with the US intel community is the official Pakistani policy.

Generals and politicians in Pakistan have developed the bad habit of what Altaf Hussain once referred poetically to as, “meetha-meetha hupp-hupp, karwaa-karwaa thoo-thoo.” This is the Urdu equivalent of having one’s cake and eating it too. In the age of Al-Jazeera, Geo, Twitter and multiple tracks of public diplomacy, this habit is becoming a bit like smoking – a habit that eventually catches up with you and gives you asthma, emphysema, and cancer of the mouth, throat and lungs. Simply put, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Pakistan’s military leadership wants a budget that is never touched or scrutinised. It wants infinite jobs, with extensions that choke up the entire meritocracy of the military and diminish officer morale and motivation. It wants to make deals with the United States and other powers that allow cadres of officers to have the benefits of being trained at Ft. Leavenworth and Sandhurst. And to top it all off, it wants an Islamo-centric nationalist pride to be the sole domain of military-led Pakistaniat.

When Raymond Davis killed two men at Mozang Chowk in Lahore he may have exposed the fragility and moral emptiness of Obama’s war in Pakistan. When the ISI and CIA agreed on how to spring that killer from jail, however, they exposed the self-effacing calculus of the Pakistani military elite. While so much of the national conversation invests itself in issues like honour and aid, the real impact of Davis is that it exposes and loosens the military’s grip on the definition of Pakistani nationalism.

The GHQ no longer gets to define itself as an infallible institution. Not after Gen Musharraf faced zero resistance from the corps commanders as he tried to bulldoze the superior judiciary. The military no longer gets to define who loves Pakistan and who doesn’t. Not after it aches for Coalition Support Funds with the right hand and stirs up controversy over the Kerry-Lugar Bill with the left. The ISI no longer gets to choose what kind of Pakistan it wants to project. Not after it helps leak Raymond Davis data to the press one day, and help negotiate his escape from Pakistan the next.

Meanwhile, somehow this coalition government still stands, three years after taking office. Just consider what the current democratic dispensation has endured. The country’s worst ever flood, an NRO crisis, a hyperactive Supreme Court, a fake-degrees scandal, Pakistan’s biggest internal displacement crisis, the rank and utter incompetence of key cabinet members, a vocal and outsized influence-enjoying MQM, the takeover of Swat, an unpopular war-cum-alliance with America and the regular terrorist bombings of shrines and mosques. Still, democracy stands – blood, incompetent, corrupt and woozy. It is a credit to the PPP and PML-N that this edifice still stands.

What at least three generations of military planners and guardians of the national interest have never quite appreciated is that Pakistan’s enormous diversity is a great asset. Democracy helps amplify this diversity. It is cantankerous and noisy, and it will not always produce the technically correct outcomes, but the Pakistani national project-a modern and powerful South Asian Muslim majority state can only be achieved through making sense of the noise. Thanks to Raymond Davis, thanks to technology, media and globalization, thanks to the lawyers’ movement, and thanks to a set of incomprehensible service extensions for the COAS and DG ISI, the noise gets louder and louder.

From Shahbaz Bhatti, to the soldiers on the frontline in FATA, to the innocent victims of drone strikes by the US, to the martyrs at shrines and mosques that have been attacked by suicide bombers, to Pakistani victims of lynchings in Bahrain Pakistanis are witnessing an era in which nationalism is not restricted to the strict definitions of the term in Rawalpindi cantonment.

It is nationalism that fuels those that protest against the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. It is nationalism that drives criticism of Pakistani military acquiescence in US drone attacks. It is nationalism that seeks transparency in Pakistani military operations in FATA and Swat. It is nationalism that values the white in the Pakistani flag as much as it values the green. It is nationalism that seeks justice for Dr. Afiya and nationalism that seeks justice for Aasiya Bibi. This diverse and cantankerous new Pakistani nationalism is an enduring strength for the country. It may be exploited by some, but it cannot be debased.

The zipper on the straight-jacket of nationalism defined by a khaki ascendancy in Pakistan has come undone. It cannot be zipped back. If Pakistan contradicts itself, very well then, it contradicts itself. Like Walt Whitman, Pakistan is large. It contains multitudes.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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