A nation naturally internalises and reflects sovereign values of all those it chooses to deify, idolise, and posit as its national and existential heroes. India’s historic affixation and aspiration towards a ‘moral’, secular, and ‘inclusive’ nation are borne of having put the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar, and Jawaharlal Nehru on its foundational pedestal.
Consequential sovereign instinct of pacifism, idealism, and civilisational profundity bestowed and defined India, with what’s now acknowledged as its patented Soft Power on the world stage – though in recent times, a recalibration of its ‘heroes’ is afoot, and a collateral outcome awaits.
Meanwhile, neighbouring Pakistan chose a decidedly ‘exclusivist’ trajectory that was rooted in its preferred genealogical rationale of the two-nation theory.
It postured militaristic muscularity with frequent disruptions to its democracy by its Generals, who spewed gimlet-soaked braggadocio, pandered to religious fanaticism, and stoked phantoms of the ‘enemy next door’ – an insecure, overenthusiastic, and angry nation entreated a ‘thousand-year war against India’, ‘bleeding India with a thousand cuts,’ or ‘one Muslim soldier is equal to 10 Hindu soldiers’ sorts of exhortation and justifications.
Concurrently and politically, retrofitting of improvised tales of Khalid Walid and Mohammad bin Qasim shaped the literal start of national history, with a deliberate amnesia onto the prior history of the ancient land.
Fledgling remains of MA Jinnah’s confused secularism died rather prematurely and rapidly – his seminal speech calling for religious equality on 11 August 1947 was immediately censored. By passing Objectives Resolution in 1949, MA Jinnah was reduced to a perfunctory photo on official walls, by 1951 his sister Fatima Jinnah (‘Mader-e-Millat’ or Mother of the Nation) was subjected to attacks on her 'modesty' and patriotism by Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who defeated her (in what was internationally believed to be rigged elections) in the Presidential Elections of 1965.
Post the humiliation of 1971, the civilian alternative in Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did barely better with declaring Islam as the state religion, symbolically organising Islamic Summit, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim etc, only to see the uncontrollable genie of religious passions consume its own progenitor, as religious parties soon sought Bhutto’s own head under the war cry of Nizam-i-Mustafa.
Almost immediately, a bigot par excellence in General Zia-ul-Haq was to emerge and conclusively drive the ‘land of the pure’ towards a theocracy of medieval times, with unbridled ferocity and purpose.
Naya Pakistan & It's Old Realities
The Zia era’s permanent damage to the soul of Pakistan is at the heart of most ills that irretrievably afflict Pakistan’s popular passions, beliefs, and actions, today. For such dark leaders in history, ‘othering’ their own towards majoritarian moorings became an invaluable political and societal tool, as oft misused in democracies.
Having made conscious rejections/selections of a certain type of national heroes, the consequences of that on the Pakistani narrative are inevitable – bedevilling it, irrespective of any restorative claims to the contrary.
A couple of months after Pakistan was first ‘grey listed’ for financing terrorism by the Global Watchdog Agency, Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in June 2018, Imran Khan was ‘selected’ for Prime Ministership promising Naya Pakistan (New Pakistan). Over three years since, ‘Taliban Khan’ (as Imran Khan is popularly/increasingly known post-Afghanistan regression) still faces the international ignominy of being ‘grey listed’.
It is not by accident but by willful politics and choices that Pakistan makes, that it engenders a certain output. The blend includes punting on Haqqani factions, internationally aligning with the likes of Recep Erdoğan and Xi Jinping, making vile, bigoted, and chauvinistic attributions to domestic opposition, perpetuating societal fault lines and divisions etc.
Naya Pakistan remains as stale, bitter, and revisionist as the one left by General Zia-ul-Haq, if not worse!
The curse of sovereign ‘choices’ sprung forth publicly with the parallel lives, perception, and fate accorded to two individuals linked inextricably to Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Recent demise of the notorious nuclear weapons technology proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan led to masses cutting across party lines to hail him as the ostensible ‘national hero’, ‘true hero’ etc.
He was also feted as ‘national icon’ by no less than Prime Minister Imran Khan himself, even though AQ Khan had earlier confessed to smuggling dangerous nuclear know-how to states like North Korea, Libya, Iran etc.
This reckless scientist had had a fairly ordinary career with credible but unheeded complaints of theft (of nuclear drawings) by Dutch authorities in mid-70s. The book, The Nuclear Jihadist: The true Story of the Man Who Sold the World’s Most Dangerous Secrets….And How We Could Have Stopped Him, notes his non-scientific passions and politics, including a pathological hatred for India.
Like his benefactor, General Zia-ul-Haq, AQ Khan, too, was a restive migrant from India (Mohajir), who invoked religion ie, Islamic Bomb, to justify his illegal, pernicious, and hateful agenda.
In later years, AQ Khan made common causes with the likes of the internationally designated terrorist, Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba infamy, by participating openly in his rallies. Video footage shows that the first wreath to be laid on AQ Khan’s grave were from the Pakistan Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and the second, from the Pakistani Chief of the Army Staff!
Faith & 'Choice' in Naya Pakistan
Contrast the lionisation of roguish AQ Khan with the desecration, obliteration, and defilement of the memory of the truly brilliant Pakistani physicist, Professor Abdus Salam – the only other Nobel Prize winner from Pakistan other than Malala Yousafzai (who, too, faces similar diminishment in the national imagination).
Both these Nobel laureates perhaps lacked the necessary hatred towards ‘othering’ and had put enlightenment over supremacist religiosity – a seemingly clear disqualification in Pakistan.
This proud Pakistani and Islamic adherent was virtually denied both identities as his belonging to the Ahmadi Sect led to the shameful obscuring of the word ‘Muslim’ from the epitaph of his tomb, which initially read, ‘First Muslim Nobel Laureate’. Tellingly, Imran Khan was to perpetuate this pettiness by almost immediately dropping well-known economist Atif Mian from his Economic Advisory Council (EAC), owing to his Ahmadi faith like Professor Abdus Salam.
Unlike AQ Khan, who weaponised (and even traded) his faith for hate and violence, Abdus Salam invoked religion as a fundamental part of his scientific enquiry, societal development, and insistences on academic culture.
Yet AQ Khan is the national ‘hero’ and Abdus Salam the forgotten achiever. Little wonder Imran Khan’s Naya Pakistan is still ‘grey listed’ – it is, after all a matter of choice.
The lesson from Pakistan applies to all democracies, including ours, as to whom we chose to venerate, revere, and glorify as symbols of sovereign identity and pride.
History from across the Line of Control warns that short-term electoral benefits can spin a disastrous national sensibility, angst, and destiny, if rewriting of history is undertaken that may seem to be populist, galvanising, and even seemingly ‘muscular’ – the nation always benefits or pays, in the long run.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)