Passion Play in Pakistan

Subhash Kak
6 min readMay 10, 2022

Passion is good; it is the stuff of life. Passion can grow in two different ways: one, as love and empathy resulting in kindness to all and a desire to see good for humanity; and the other as anger and hate, where the objective is to destroy real or imagined enemies.

One needs education (not bookish learning) to know how to choose correctly. Kindness brings rewards whereas hate diminishes, and if respect brings people together, isolation breeds resentment. These thoughts are true not only at the level of the individual but also that of nations, and they help us understand history.

Let us see if all this helps make sense of Pakistan’s historical trajectory?

I came across this statement by the new Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif: “India must reverse its abrogation of Art 370 & 35A in Jammu and Kashmir. The onus now lies with India to create an environment conducive for a meaningful dialogue.”

Pakistani economy is in dire straits with raging inflation and per capita GDP falling every year over the last four years. In 1971, Pakistan was 70% richer than Bangladesh, but now Bangladesh is nearly 60% richer than Pakistan.

Common sense suggests that good relations and resumption of trade with its neighbor will bring relief, so why is Mr. Sharif echoing the belligerent tone of his predecessor? Changing the tone is only one step; common sense also requires that Pakistan cease support for terrorist groups, because without that normalization of relations with India is not going to happen.

The simplistic answer is that foreign policy in Pakistan is set by the Army, but perhaps the true answer is that the public supports it for the idea is drummed into everyone as an expression of the national vision of Riyasat-e-Medina, and repeated endlessly by the media, the schoolbooks, and political and religious leaders.

Jazba with no end

Why is Pakistan lagging so badly even though it has vast natural resources? Pakistanis pride themselves on their jazba (passion) but they, as a nation, haven’t been able to transmute it in beneficial ways.

The region of present-day Pakistan was one of the most advanced societies in the world until about a thousand years ago. It had one of the world’s two greatest universities at Taxila (the other was at Nalanda) , and it made incredible contributions to art, literature, architecture, and the sciences. Arguably the greatest scientific genius who ever lived, the grammarian Panini, was born here in a town at the confluence of Kabul and Sindh Rivers 2,500 years ago. And the great stupa that Kanishka built in Swat was literally identical to the Taj Mahal in its plan, and even had a similar dome.

Yes, there was passion behind those great achievements, but there was also devotion to excellence, and wisdom that guided the mind to truth and beauty.

We didn’t see wisdom during the prime ministerial tenure of Imran Khan, who appeased the Taliban, angered his allies and did not make progress at resolving trade, economic, or security issues. He broke the trust with his benefactors, the Americans, by helping the Taliban to defeat the Afghanistan government.

The ouster of Imran Khan has led to the display of jazba by his supporters, but little attempt to understand the arc of history.

From Jazba to Nafrat

A widespread support for extremism is one reason why the politicians have found it difficult to reverse the blasphemy law, which is often used for sexual slavery and for silencing opponents in Pakistan.

It is easy for anyone to abduct a minor girl from a minority religion, video record a statement by her that she has embraced Islam and married her abductor, and now she cannot return to her family because that would be apostasy, which is punishable by death!

Likewise, an opponent accused of blasphemy could languish in jail for years or even killed in police custody.

Rather than consider ways to empower women, there is aversion (نفرت‎ nafrat, from Arabic نَفْرَة‎) and too much of jazba is expended on how women must be prevented from attracting men. In general, there is continuity between attitudes towards women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and if there is difference, it is of degree and not basic values.

Thus schooling for girls beyond Class 6 still has not resumed in Afghanistan nearly one year after the capture of power by the Taliban. Absent schooling for girls, the next generations of Afghans will be unable to compete with their peers, and put their country into a vicious cycle of backwardness and victimhood.

The same disregard for empowering and respecting women — and factors of forced marriage and honor violence — is a big factor in Pakistan’s poor economic performance.

Children learn most from mothers

Let us travel outside and look at how these attitudes work out in places with level playing field.

This is because within the system, obvious patterns elude the smartest people as George Orwell warned: “In general, the greater the understanding, the greater the delusion; the more intelligent, the less sane.”

Even though the same Punjabis ethnic groups from India and Pakistan ended up immigrating to the UK, their economic success could not be more apart. Here’s the income data from UK for different ethnic groups:

Official UK statistics

Rather than address these issues directly, the easy explanation adopted by the Pakistani elites is that of victimhood and discrimination.

These attitudes encourage the breaking of the law as we see in the official crime figures from the UK broken down on the basis of religion (where the Hindus are Indian and Muslims are primarily Pakistani):

Fighting one’s past

The Riyasat-e-Medina defines itself in opposition to India, and its fight is not only militarily but also culturally.

This fight even covers language. For example, Khuda is the word for God that has been used in nothwest India for over 3,000 years. Its occurrence in Avesta is well-known and its Sanskrit etymology is clear. It has been used in Urdu poetry and it is part of common speech as in the phrase Khuda hafiz, “May God protect you”. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, during Zia-ul-Haq’s rule, when the etymology of the word Khuda became widely known, Allah hafiz became the favored phrase.

The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was the working of the same mind-set, with physical destruction rather than that of words.

In a larger sense, it doesn’t matter whether you use old or new words, but fighting one’s own past is an acid that makes it difficult to deal with the present. Willful destruction of art and monuments are symptoms of this syndrome.

It is like self-mutilation or self-harm, seen in both humans and animals. Some people use it as a coping mechanism to provide temporary relief of intense feelings such as anxiety, depression, stress, emotional numbness, or a sense of failure. Unhappy caged birds pluck out their feathers.

Pakistan has surfeit of jazba, but not corresponding hikmat, aqalmandi, or danai (wisdom) to leverage it for prosperity.

To see the situation in stark economic terms, cultural attitudes mentioned above impede Pakistan in its competition with other countries. Since women will not be allowed equal space in the crucial technological sector, it has effective economic strength that is half that of other free nations.

The Pakistani insistence that it must reject old symbols and even words, when all of science is ultimately a play with conceptual symbols, is a kind of irrational hate. This cannot end well for in Nelson Mandela’s words: “Hatred is like drinking poison and then waiting for it to kill your enemy.”