By Huma Yusuf
August 14, 2017
HAPPY Independence Day — a day of commemoration and celebration. But when did you last stop to think: independence from whom?
Aug 14 has largely been stripped of its historical context and become a day to celebrate national identity in its most generic incarnation, never mind the independence part. I associate the day with the green and white of the flag, the pre-adolescent thrill of going to school in colourful clothes and receiving a free coke or ice cream, and songs with repetitive lyrics — Dil Dil Pakistan; Jeeway Jeeway Jeeway Pakistan; Hum Dekhein Azad Tujhe, Hum Dekhein Azad — their simplicity suggesting that being a sovereign state is easy; sing together and become a nation in harmony.
The notion of independence is not inherent to the celebration of this day. When we move beyond the flag-waving, we face up to the desire to finally reckon with Partition. This is evident in the growing number of oral history projects such as that of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan and the 1947 Partition Archive, as well as efforts by media outlets to collect Partition stories. Through such remembering, Partition is becoming decoupled from the context in which it occurred; it is being rendered as a personal experience, not a political one.
Despite the growing availability of individuals’ Partition memories, a silence still looms — and will continue to loom, on both sides of the border — over the event. This is because for Pakistan it raises the difficult question of whether a homeland that came at the expense of such awful violence and displacement was worth it. And for India, Partition carries the potential of other partitions, a further splintering of the federation. The difficulty of tackling these issues does not mean that they should not be addressed; indeed, there can be few major historical events as poorly documented and debated as Partition. But Partition is not the same as independence.
The independence that we are meant to celebrate today is from colonial rule. In India, the idea of independence continues to be linked with the experience of colonisation, particularly this year, thanks to Shashi Tharoor’s recent arguments that the Indian subcontinent was impoverished by the British Raj, and that an apology is long overdue. But in Pakistan, the link between our independence and our colonial past seems much more remote, and somehow less relevant.
In recent years, we have demonstrated the lingering impact on our national psyche of the colonial experience in the staunch middle-class rejection of the West, primarily in the form of anti-US sentiment. We have used the language of sovereignty with great fervour when it comes to railing against US pressure and interference. But there is a cynical aspect to this show of independence — we demand sovereignty even while we continue to seek US civilian and military aid, Coalition Support Funds, fighter jets, and a good word with the IMF. This form of independence is a political ploy, yielded to gain more concessions.
We seem to have forgotten what independence means. The state of not being dependent. Of being self-reliant. Of being capable of managing one’s affairs without interference. Unfortunately, and despite our past, the idea of independence has not been ingrained deeply enough for us to genuinely and systematically reject any colonial relationship. Our post-independence history is that of a client state: of the US, Saudi Arabia, China. As our schoolchildren learn Mandarin and we hand over our ports, roads, power plants, stock exchange and digital infrastructure to Beijing, we have to ask the question again: what independence are we celebrating? From whom?
The fact is, in defiance of history, our independence has been re-crafted as that from India (with the implicit suggestion that India may want to rob us of our independence). Our history — ironically, our independent history — of dictatorships and a growing military-industrial complex have led to this reframing and paranoia that pits Indian aggression as the greatest threat to our independent, sovereign status. The nationalism that we celebrate on Independence Day is defined by its anti-India stance, and not by anything else. But how can you celebrate your independence from an entity that does not rule over you, and is unlikely ever to?
The problem with independence is that it entails taking responsibility — of one’s trajectory, vision, future. And that’s something we don’t seem willing to do, even 70 years after the fact. Tellingly, just days before this holiday, the Senate called for inter-institutional dialogue to help strengthen the role of parliament and preserve the democratic order. Such a meeting is needed because each institution in Pakistan appears to work independently of the other, serving its own interests rather than the polity. This kind of independence is hardly worth celebrating.
Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist.