Concerned Citizens Forum

There is a future for Pakistan

Over the last 40 years the civil society has been gradually squeezed out of the public space in Pakistan. Educated people and successful professionals who have chosen to stay and would like to build up their own country have no say whatsoever and are captives of the military. What do such people think about Pakistan, its foreign policy and especially its involvement in Afghanistan and Kashmir?
What future do they foresee? Brigitte Voykowitsch spoke for Die Gazette to Sohail Zafar and Hussain Halmat, by profession a medical doctor and a lawyer, repectively, and both of them founder members of the Concerned Citizens Forum in Lahore, one of a number of such citizens' organisations in the country whose members - lawyers, doctors, businessmen, academics and other professionals - are trying to get a dialogue going on "What kind of Pakistan do we want?"

Gazette: Three decades after their last war, Pakistan and India have moved toward the brink of yet another military confrontation. Are you confident that a solution can be found and what could it look like?

Sohail Zafar:
Both India and Pakistan are to blame, we have together destroyed the Kashmir valley, there is no trade there, there is no tourism there, only militancy and violence. Let the people of Kashmir finally decide what they want, if they want to stay with India or with Pakistan or be independent, let the people decide, it would be the only fair thing to do, why do we always have to meddle.

India, however, is definitely not inclined to allow a referendum in the valley nor has Pakistan given up its support for the militants whom it calls freedom fighters. What then can be the way out of the crisis?

Hussain Halmat:
Then give the people in both parts of Kashmir genuine and full autonomy and open borders. But solve the problem and move on. Pakistan has made the mistake of selling its soul for Kashmir and Afghanistan. For the past decades our involvement with Afghanistan and our schizophrenic view of Kashmir has only been in the interest in the army and at the cost of our economy and development.

Sohail Zafar:
It is extremely unfortunate that for a good part of our 54 years of independence we have been too involved with our socalled security concerns. Look at this country. Why has it become a failed state? Because no one was bothered about the country, everyone was bothered about Kashmir and Afghanistan. The United States of America have supposedly been a friend of Pakistan but in reality they have been siding with the army and wanted our army to serve their interests. It was all wrong to get into the hands of the superpowers and play second fiddle to them.

Hussain Halmat:
Now that the Taliban regime has collapsed let us put an end to our follies in Afghanistan. Let us concentrate on our own country where the vast majority of the people are so poor and dispossessed.

Sohail Zafar:
Let us finally state that we have no ambitions to become any power in Central Asia or West Asia or anywhere else. Let us finally build up this country because this now is not the Pakistan that we want. Now I want the next 20 years for Pakistan only. I want my country to be Malaysia in 20 years, and for that we need to concentrate on our own people.

Hussain Halmat:
Look at the state we are in. We don't have proper health facilities here, we dont have proper education. Our government may say that the literacy rate is about 35 to 40 percent, but I dont believe it is no more than 20 percent. You just can't say a person who can sign his name is literate.

Sohail Zafar:
People want food and medicine, clean water and roads, they want their children to be educated and they want to concentrate on their own affairs and not have their lives forever hijacked by our foreign policy. The army should stick to the borders.

Gazette:
Given the history of Pakistan and the prominent role that the army has played in it, how can this be achieved?

Sohail Zafar:
It is going to be a long and difficult process. The military is too well entrenched. Over the years the armed forces have developed a huge industrial complex and amassed so many privileges, now they are there to guard them and just dont want to give them up. But if we look at the world, there is no other country with a population the size of ours, around 140 million, where the army thinks it can and should rule. These are no longer the times to rule a country with the barrel of a gun, with one man calling the shots. You feel ashamed that your country is running like this, while India is having elections, Sri Lanka has a civil war but still holds regular elections, Bangladesh is having elections, and even after 11 September a new mayor was elected in New York.

Hussain Halmat:
Afghanistan and Kashmir simply must no longer be the cornerstones of our living. We want a leaqdership that is worried about the next generation in this country.

Sohail Zafar:
The establishment of a genuine democratic pluralist order must be the goal. I still hope that fresh elections will be held this year and that these could be the start of a new process. Of course, democracy is much more than elections, it is about people having a real say and a strong civil society. Over the years the people of this country have lost their say, we have become a more repressive and cynical society, we dont believe in ourselves. But now a different generation has come up after the fall of Dhaka [the breakaway of former East Pakistan and its independence as the new country of Bangladesh in 1971]. These are educated professionals who graduated in the 70s and are now in their professional lives and well settled. They wish to move forward, to become modern, democratic, scientific-oriented, in step with the world. They themselves would not wish to leave Pakistan and they want to make this country a liveable place for their children so there is no longer any incentive for them to leave. Right now we are suffering from a huge brain drain among the young.

Hussain Halmat:
Right now there are no opportunities for the young in this country. They have access to the internet and to cable TV and see what is out there in the world and then they look back at their own country and feel so helpless. Why, they ask, can't we do anything, why can't we develop, why can't we move on? That is why organisations like ours are being formed. We need to reflect on what the civil society can do and debate on the kind of Pakistan that we want to build up.

Sohail Zafar:
We have such outstanding citizens here like Asma Jehangir [top human rights and feminist lawyer, currently special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions of the UN Commission on Human Rights], to mention only one. There have been individuals who made tremendous efforts in the interests of the people and set up schools and hospitals. But we don't have a parliament, we are captives of the military, the feudal elite, the bureaucracy a a small circle of politicians. And this has been going on almost since independence. Pakistan has conducted itself so poorly and it is certainly not up to our intellectual standards. Of course, now the multiple efforts within the small civil society must come together.

Despite the long periods of military rule, Pakistan has had a full decade - the 90s of the last century - of democratic rule. Yet people were so frustrated at the end that a great number of them welcomed the military takeover by General Pervez Musharraf.

Hussain Halmat:
I dont think those two prime ministers [Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif] were really free to do what they wanted to do, there was always the military in the shadows. But, of course, they were also to blame for their corruption. The civilian interludes in our short history did not give the opportunity to either the political parties or to civil society to develop the process which leads to a consolidation of democratic institutions. Our democratic institutions were weak from the beginning. The interruptions in the democratic process meant that we again and again went back to point zero. The political parties have been weak and also corrupt and the military has exploited this to impose its own writ.

Sohail Zafar:
Unfortunately, the democratic experiment of the 1990s was not very successful. But democracy is still our only way out. As I have already said, this can only be an evolutional process. So much needs to be done. It is most unfortuante that politics has got such a bad name, it has really become a taboo for certain classes. But what can one expect when you have had policitians being murdered, hanged and exiled. Civil society now needs to raise its voice and to make itself heard. Unless we demand a different country we are not going to get it ever. We want to stir the silent majority into action, we want to bring out what the common men want in this country.

Hussain Halmat:
Genuine democracy is the only solution to our multiple problems. This country is deivided on so many counts, ethnicity, language, urban-rural, feudal-modern. If you have true democracy, the various cultures in this country can function within their different provinces and a mixed culture will prevail at the national level. It is only when the centre tries to grab the power in the provinces against the spirit of federalism that the problems arise. Let me be a Punjabi and have my language. Yes, Urdu is the national language, but it does not belong to this area at all, I have accepted it as natonal language, but my identity should be recognized like that of a Pashtun or a Sindhi or a Baluch or a Kashmiri.

Sohail Zafar:
We know there are so many different people in Pakistan, but there are so many languages and cultures in India and they are all living together within a democratic setup. We need to achieve this as well, but the only way to live together is to give every one a fair share of power and of resources.

When people like you are speaking about a new generation of educated people who want democracy and a modern society, you are really only talking about a very small minority within Pakistan. What are the wishes of the vast majority? Where do you consider the radical Muslims who do not show the least interest in a modern democratic state?

Hussain Halmat:
The radical Muslims are only a minute minority in Pakistan. Religious parties have always been there, but they always only got a few percent at the polls. If we have radicals, we, the elite, also have to blame ourselves. What stake have we given the masses of the poor and dispossessed in this Pakistan? The only places where the poor are taken care of are the madrasas. They feed them and educate them in their own way. We should have made sure to give them literacy of another type and taught them trades and skills. We don't have to close the madrasas. If we get real democracy and give people their rights, give them education and food and shelter and a future, the problem of fundamentalism will take care of itself. Religion plays a prominent role in our lives. But we dont want the distorted message of the Mullah.
The majority is neither repressive nor fundamentalist. More than 90 percent of the people of Pakistan are progressive and want to build a modern educated country. But the army and the bureacracy want to use Islam to blackmail people.

Sohail Zafar:

The army never thought of what it was doing to this country. They got us kalashnikows and a drug culture and did not think about what wrong they were doing and how much they were destroying here. The armed forces have seen people as their enemies and been keen on maiming and destroying them. They don't want the political parties to coalesce, they dont want the people to unite to reclaim civilian supremacy over the army. But democracy is our only hope. We need a new leadership for the new millennium. We want real peace.

13. Januar 2002

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