The absconding future —Rafia Zakaria

As yet another “historic” political drama unfolds in Islamabad, watched only by the few who have stakes in the game and ignored by the rest of the nation, the value of Pakistani citizenship plummets to new depths

As Pakistan’s sixty-second birthday approaches, much will be written regarding the precarious political, economic and social problems afflicting our now middle-aged nation. With the fledgling democratic government entrapped in a seemingly constant state of possible dissolution and suicide bombings becoming troublingly commonplace, Pakistanis will have to dig deep indeed to locate any vestiges of hope to herald their nation’s birthday.

In this elusive quest, I decided to engage in a conversation with a demographic that is touted as the bastion of a nation’s intellectual wealth and patriotic zeal — university students. Admittedly, medical students at the private university where I conducted these conversations are not a diverse group in terms of economics or otherwise. Most come from upper-middle and middle class families and have been raised on the staunch ethic of hard work and self empowerment through education. Several are offspring of expatriates living in the Gulf, Europe and the United States. Like many other private colleges, this particular university makes its students sign affidavits committing to refraining from political activity on campus, ostensibly in an effort to reduce inter-student rivalries and maintain a focus on education.

Given the truism that the middle class of a country is the most invested in ensuring future political stability, the views of these young adults have particular pertinence in predicting the course of Pakistan’s future over the next twenty years. In terms of the political troubles ailing Pakistan — the rampant suicide bombings, the recent crash of the Karachi Stock Exchange, the astronomical levels of inflation — I found the insights emerging from these conversations to be illustrative of endemic problems ailing Pakistani political culture.

Most impressive was the students’ stalwart persistence in their educational course despite the dismal security situation in Karachi. I was repeatedly reminded of the fact that their university remains open regardless of suicide bombings, strikes and the many other structural obstacles that afflict daily life in the city. One group I spoke with recounted how they had been robbed at gunpoint a few days earlier and yet had continued with their clinical work and daily lecture schedule.

This sense of tenacity exhibited by the students was accompanied by the realisation that it involved a congruent dearth of empathy toward the victims of the killings and bombings in Karachi: as one student put it, “we have no option but to mind our own business.”

This last statement is particularly illustrative of the political culture of Karachi’s middle and upper-middle class. By their own admission, these students view politics as an arena of corruption and power-grabbing and see very little connection between electoral franchise and representative democracy. While most voted in the February 18 polls, nearly all insist they don’t see the government at the Centre or in Sindh as even minimally representing their interests.

Even more troubling was when questioned about the two ongoing political cataclysms in the country — the Taliban insurgency and the controversy over the deposed judges — these students (whom you would expect at least in theory to be avid supporters of the latter) were insistent in saying that they felt affinity toward neither. In their opinion, if the Taliban insurgency was capitalising using religion to further a political agenda, the lawyers’ movement was similarly manipulated by political interests using the “rule of law” as a convenient catchphrase. After all, as one student said, “these deposed judges were in power for seven years before they were kicked out…if they had so much power to change the judiciary…why didn’t they do so?”

It is not unsurprising that as a result of this disaffection, malaise and general pessimism toward a sustainable future in Pakistan, most of the students at this university, like many others such private schools in Pakistan, have plans to migrate to a foreign country as soon as their education is completed. Citing lack of opportunities, security and stability as the predominant reasons influencing their decision, and whetted by the fact that many are children of expatriates living in the Gulf and even Europe and the US, few see living in Pakistan as a positive outcome.

This urge to flee Pakistan as soon as the opportunity presents itself is worthy of attention not simply because it illustrates the brain drain that is often cited as the source of the country’s problems. Pakistan was created sixty-two years ago to give Muslims of the subcontinent the opportunity to become citizens of a country that represented their interests. In this particular sense, it represented a choice, where the subcontinent’s Muslims chose to become part of a fledgling nation and initiate one of the greatest migrations in history. It is the death of this conception of Pakistani citizenship as an active choice that is the most prominent lesson to be gleaned from the sentiments expressed by these young students.

In the sixty-two years hence, the sense of alienation and disaffection that afflicts those who have the power to change things, the pervasive feelings of helplessness, the fear of politics and ultimately the desire to leave all point to the reality that Pakistan is increasingly inhabited not by those who choose to live here, but rather by those who have no option but to stay. Pakistani citizenship thus is no longer a choice but rather a dismal reality relevant only to those who are unable to amass the means or the education to leave the country.

This grim assessment is reflected not simply in the frank admissions of medical students but also in the unapologetic flight of notable politicians, who have made Dubai, London and the United States their bases of operation and have vast investments assuring their affluence is independent of the fate of Pakistan. As yet another “historic” political drama unfolds in Islamabad, watched only by the few who have stakes in the game and ignored by the rest of the nation, the value of Pakistani citizenship plummets to new depths. The future of Pakistan it seems is based increasingly on finding a way to run away from it.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. The writer would like to thank Yousuf Zakaria for his help with this piece. She can be contacted at

Source: Daily Times, 9/8/2008

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