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Pakistan Has Lost Its Way, but the People Are Powerful

Fifteen years ago, storied Pakistani civil servant Roedad Khan wrote this reflection on the state of his country. His impassioned plea for a democratic Pakistan that puts the people first, not corrupt elites in Islamabad, remains poignant today. Khan writes about a rotten system on the verge of collapse, preserved only by the cowardice of those too complacent to demand freedom.

Pakistan flag on a background of mountain valley © Khalid Nawaz /

January 25, 2024 06:13 EDT

[Roedad penned this piece in October 2009. It remains as timely today as it was 15 years ago.]

Every now and then, I feel despair over the plight of Pakistan. We are hurtling toward catastrophe, but nobody wants to hear about it or do anything to avert it. For years, I have been ranting like Nietzsche’s fool with a lantern: It is coming. It is coming. I do not know where and how. We stand on a volcano. We feel it tremble, we hear it roar, how and when and where it will burst and who will be destroyed by its eruption, it is beyond the ken of mortals to discern.

Somehow, our history has gone astray. We were such good people when we set out on the road to Pakistan. What happened? An evil spirit now hangs over Pakistan. The people are too tired, too disappointed, too disillusioned, too often betrayed and too ill-informed to comprehend the issues churning beneath the placid surface of life. Depression, fear, frustration and anger no longer have an outlet in politics. The people have, therefore, turned inward, to religious orthodoxy, to intolerance, the small things in life, to local politics and impotent rage.

It is as if all the time one was boiling inside with some kind of helpless indignation, enraged to see such a good country going to hell, and going to hell with such cruelty and waste. People are watching with increasing apprehension the country going downhill, its strength gradually sapped by dissension and divisions. Trust in institutions is at historic lows. It is impossible to be calm and quiet in a country that is going downhill, going to hell. A country that tolerates a situation in which people begrimed with corruption rule, is a sick country.

Today Pakistan, a broken landscape of empty, sagging state institutions, superficially intact but visibly shredded, is at war with itself. The drums of secession are beating loud and clear in the smaller provinces. Today the threat to Pakistan is not external. It is internal. This brings to mind Toynbee’s comment that a civilization doesn’t die from being invaded from the outside but rather commits suicide.

Many early symptoms that heralded the decline of Rome may be seen in our own nation today: periodic military intervention in the affairs of state, prolonged military rule, concentration of power in one corrupt ruler without responsibility and accountability, contempt for the constitution and political institutions, absence of the rule of law, high-level corruption and greed. When the history of Pakistan comes to be written, the verdict of history will be, almost certainly, that corrupt civilian and military dictatorships, more than anything else, destroyed Pakistan.

Today the biggest single burning issue before the country is this: How do we put the country back on the rails? How do we get back on the right path to a democratic Pakistan? Above all, how do we reclaim the army from its abuse by a power-hungry junta that wants to use it as an instrument for grabbing and retaining political power?

It is now abundantly clear, except to those who are blind or on drugs, that if Pakistan is to survive, the army must be placed outside the turbulent arena of political conflict. As a direct consequence of military intervention in October 1958, we lost half the country in 1971. Our Bengali compatriots parted company with us when we drifted away from the democratic path. They saw no future for themselves in a military-dominated Pakistan and broke the country in two.

Complacency keeps Pakistan from creating the democracy it needs

“Man learns nothing from history,” Hegel once said, “except that man learns nothing from history.” The secession of East Pakistan made it abundantly clear that the federation cannot survive except as a democratic state based on the principle of sovereignty of the people and supremacy of civilian rule. Pakistan cannot survive under military rule — direct or indirect, thinly disguised or not, with or without a civilian façade — because military rule lacks legitimacy and is doomed to failure. Pakistan will never be what it can be, let alone what it will need to be, without a genuine democratic setup.

Today, all the historical symptoms which one meets prior to great changes exist in Pakistan. The country appears to be adrift. Nobody knows where it was headed without wise and mature leadership to guide or direct it. We are on the verge of a political and economic collapse. The social contract between the government and the people has collapsed. The dialogue between the rulers and the ruled has broken down.

All the philosophers tell the people they are the strongest, and that if they are sent to the slaughterhouse, it is because they have let themselves be led there. Autocracy is retreating everywhere except in Pakistan. Why? In other countries there are men and women who love liberty more than they fear persecution. Not in Pakistan. Here, the middle class, which owes everything to this poor country, does not think in terms of Pakistan and her honor but of their families, their jobs, their business interests, etc. Surrender rather than sacrifice is the theme of their thoughts and conversations.

To such as these, talk of resisting autocracy is as embarrassing as finding yourself in the wrong clothes at a party, as tactless as challenging a legless man to a race, as out of place as a bugle call in a mortuary. Every now and then, one hears some of them reciting the verses of Horace: “Oh how much wiser is he who rather than go to war [against despotism] stays at home, caressing the breast of his mistress.” I am exasperated at those camping comfortably on the edge of a volcano, who do not see disaster looming ahead. What is tragic is the total failure of the politicians, the intelligentsia, in fact, the whole of civil society to comprehend the internal threat and to devise ways and means to thwart it.

What is more intriguing is that the rhythm of life remains, more or less, unchanged. “Everything seems,” as Goethe said, “to be following its normal course, because even in terrible moments in which everything is at stake people go on living as if nothing were happening.” In Pakistan, as in geology, things can look perfectly stable on the surface — until the tectonic plate shifts underneath. The straws in the wind are there. Time will show whether there are enough of them to make a bale of hay.

If you want to see the chasm between the grotesquely rich and the abjectly poor, come to Pakistan. A privileged few own the country and all the resources of life; The rest just pray or die. Pakistan today is a land of opportunities for corrupt, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians holding fake degrees, dishonest civil servants, smugglers and tax evaders who have fat bank accounts, luxurious villas, mansions and apartments in the West. A great divide, a yawning chasm — some call it a new Iron Curtain — separates them from their less fortunate countrymen whose life is “nasty, brutish and short”. They have a stake in the status quo, or the system, as they call it. While life at the top gets cushier, millions of jobless people and those at the bottom of the social ladder are forced to resort to crime merely to survive. Many of them are fleeing the country and desperately trying to escape to the false paradises of the Middle East and the West. The rich are getting richer, while the poor are sinking deeper and deeper into a black hole.

The state of things has been so insufferable that one longs for it to be decided, as it must be now, one way or another. Unfortunately, the tyranny of the status quo is too strong and only a major crisis can produce a real change.

Pakistan will need a revolution

When we organize with one another, when we get involved, when we stand up and speak out together, we can create a power no government can suppress. We live in a beautiful country. But those who have nothing but contempt for the people and no respect for democracy, freedom or justice have taken it over. It is up to all of us to take it back. And as Margaret Mead said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Those who support the corrupt order are standing against the irreversible march of history and are doomed to failure.

“Revolution inevitably erupts when rising economic and social aspirations are not met by political institutions.” So said Samuel Huntington. A fair, equitable and corruption-free tax system must be primary objective of a democratically elected government. It is now incontestable that the French, Russian and American revolutions had a common financial origin. All began as protest against unjust taxation. The years preceding the outbreak of revolution in France, Russia and America, to name only three, witnessed unusually serious economic and fiscal difficulties. Pakistan too is facing economic collapse. Rampant inflation has devastated the majority of Pakistanis. The poor are on the verge of starvation; indeed people are dying for a bag of flour.

Flashback to 1789. Like today’s Pakistan, France was a striking example of a rich society with an impoverished government. The end of the old regime in France in 1789 was brought about by an inequitable, unfair and unjust taxation system and a cash-flow crisis. Physical exhaustion precipitated the French Revolution.

Revolution comes of its own accord, un-engineered by anyone, and is born in the chaos of the collapse of the state. In the French revolution, the Bastille was assaulted by washerwomen who could not get soap.

One of the earliest and most spectacular acts of the great uprising in Paris in July 1789 was to pursue the economic vampires who were widely rumored to have secreted away their booty. “Tremble, you who suck the blood of poor unhappy wretches”, warned Marat. “These blood suckers either give an account of their larceny and restore to the nation what they have stolen or else, be delivered to the blade of law.” Today, Pakistan is on the cusp of such a revolution. Never before have so few plundered so many.

The country appears to be adrift. Terror is the order of the day. Talibans are resurgent and anti-American anger is boiling over. Pakistan is sliding into anarchy. Pakistan is in “great disorder,” “excellent situation,” to quote Mao Zedong.

One of the lessons of history is that, when hunger and anger come together, people sooner or later come on to the streets and demonstrate Lenin’s maxim that in such situations voting with one’s feet is more effective than voting in elections. The bringing together of anger with hunger is like the meeting of two live wires. At their touch, a brilliant incandescence of light and heat occurs. Just what and who will be consumed in the heat is hard to tell.

The state of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan reminds me of the telegram from an Austrian general responding to his German counterpart toward the end of World War I. The German general described the situation in his sector of the eastern front as “serious, but not catastrophic.” In the Austrian sector, came the reply, “the situation is catastrophic but not serious.” In Pakistan, the situation is serious verging on catastrophic.

Ordinary Pakistanis are sick and tired of the corrupt power game being played in Pakistan. While there is no sign yet of a spring tide, millions of tiny waves are lapping the shores of despair. Our only chance is to rise against these practitioners of grand larceny who are looting and plundering this poor country with impunity.

It is time to wake up. Let Pakistan be Pakistan again. Let it be the dream it used to be — a dream that is almost dead today. All those who see the perils of the future must draw together and take resolute measures to put Pakistan back on course before the tsunami catches up and hits us all. The longer we allow the waters to rise, the greater the catastrophe that will follow the bursting of the dam. Our window of opportunity is getting narrower and narrower by the day. It will, no doubt, be an uphill struggle to redeem our democracy and fashion it once again into a vessel to be proud of.

At a time like this, people detest those who remain passive, who remain silent, and love only those who fight, who dare. In this transcendent struggle, neutrality is not an option. You’re either with the people or against them. It is as simple as that. One thing is clear. The day is not far off when status quo will shift, corrupt, inept rulers will get their just desserts, and people will once again believe in the “power of the powerless.”

Enough corruption!

No military dictator and no corrupt civilian ruler can afford an independent judiciary or an independent media. They cannot co-exist. Today, both are under attack in democratic Pakistan.

In Thomas Paine’s words, “these are times that try men’s souls. The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the services of his country, but he who serves it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” It is not enough to sit back and let history slowly evolve. To settle back into your cold-hearted acceptance of the status quo is not an option. The present leadership is taking Pakistan to a perilous place. The course they are on leads downhill. This is a delicate time, full of hope and trepidation in equal measure. Today, it is a political and moral imperative for all patriotic Pakistanis to fight for our core values, to destroy the roots of the evil that afflicts Pakistan.

Once the civil service, in the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was the backbone of the state. No longer. Successive governments have reduced public servants to the level of domestic servants. The service we inherited on independence, known for its integrity, objectivity and political neutrality, has over the years been thoroughly mutilated, demoralized, emasculated, politicized, corrupted and changed beyond recognition. It is now a ghost of its former self.

Not surprisingly, when tragedy struck in the greatest flood in our history, one-fifth of the country went underwater, and millions of people were rendered homeless, there was nobody to look after them. Elected representatives of the people just vanished and were not to be seen anywhere. Civil administration was paralyzed. The lesson of history is that when the dykes of administration crumble, revolutions begin.

In the farcical system we have today, things are not what they appear to be. Realism does not exist in Islamabad, because life in Islamabad is itself a fiction. The constitution says one thing. What happens on the ground is something quite different. Behind the constitution, there is an unwritten constitution which governs the state.

Here in Islamabad, there is nothing but the nauseating stench of resignation. With every passing day, the tide of hope recedes, revealing the unpleasant mud that the souls of slaves are made of. Is it our destiny that there must always be darkness at high noon, there must always be a line of shadow against the sun? We need people who will stand up and say: Enough! Enough

This is not acceptable in the 21st century. Why is the better sort of the nation so silent today? Why have the intellectuals adopted “the genre of silence”? Why is there no public outrage? Why is there no loud protest? “Where are the men to be found who will dare to speak up,” as Voltaire said? The creative intellectuals have been driven to ramshackle ivory towers or bought off. Show me an educated man with a silver spoon in Pakistan today, and I will show you a man without a spine.

Pakistan is a case of failed leadership, not failed state. Until we get the right kind of leadership, Pakistan will continue to oscillate between long periods of authoritarianism and bouts of corrupt and sham democracy. I am a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. I have this palpable feeling that the Maoist prescription — things have to get worse before they get better — is being tested in Pakistan today.

These are dangerous times in our country. These are also anti-elitist times. Pakistan is seething in ferment and in disarray. Under an imbecile and feeble government, as we have today, there is but one step from discontent to revolution. A sad situation but true.

Farewell our dreams, our sublime illusions, our hopes, our independence and our sovereignty. Today the survival of the country, its hard-won democracy, its independent judiciary, its liberties all are on the line. No one is safe, and perhaps no place on earth more closely resembles Hobbes’ description of a stage of nature in which life is “nasty, brutish and short.”

Pakistan is rudderless and sliding into darkness. It is like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can’t stretch out your hand to prevent them. Such is the feeling conjured up by corrupt, inept rulers of Pakistan as it enters a period of great uncertainty and sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire. I reproduce below some lines, relevant to our situation today, from an unknown writer about a railway accident:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?

The axles creak, and the couplings strain.

For the pace is hot, and the points are near,

And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear:

And signals flash through the night in vain.

Death is in charge of the clattering train!

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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