Pakistan is not merely a country for its soldiers. It is our determination to look the enemy in the eye with such valour that he dares not set an evil glance on our borders. PHOTO: REUTERS
Since 1984, the Pakistan Army has been fighting a war on the highest battlefield of the world, the Siachen Glacier. Although there have been periods of temporary ceasefire, they have always been followed by severe aggression from both sides.
During one such hostile period in 1987, a high altitude post of the Pakistan Army at the Siachen Glacier was commanded by my uncle who was then a captain. He had been there for five months and had no hope of being relieved in the near future because of the escalated tensions and harsh weather. One day he was sitting with his troops in the igloo listening to a radio program that aired from Islamabad.
One soldier was peeling potatoes for dinner, another was reading a letter from home, possibly for the hundredth time and two were lying in their sleeping bags trying to rest since sleep was usually the last thing on their minds. They had numbed themselves to the memories of their homes and families.
In the program on the radio, listeners would call in and ask for their requests to be played along with a small message. My uncle told me that after a few such calls, the radio host began to read a letter which was probably sent by a soldier’s wife or relative. The letter read that the sender wanted to dedicate a song to a young soldier who had gone to war at Siachen and was sitting somewhere far away from home, unable to call back. The letter said that he/she wanted this song to be dedicated to this soldier whom all his friends and family missed dearly.
The host, without missing a beat added,
“We will play this song for your friend and for all our brothers-in-arms who are away from their families, in unknown location and perhaps, in very difficult conditions only so that we all can be safe, enjoying the warmth of our homes and our families. For that, we are all very grateful to them.”
And with that Amanat Ali’s voice came on air with the song, Aye Watan Pyare Watan.
My uncle recounted that although the reception was weak, the voice quality was poor and with each passing moment, the temperature continued to fall; but the fire that song lit in the hearts and souls of those men blazed and blazed, harder with each passing verse, as they sat cramped in that single, little igloo in a snow-covered wasteland.
No one said a word. The soldier peeling potatoes kept peeling one after the other, the one reading the letter finished it and crept into his sleeping bag, the other one got up and began to get ready as his shift was about to begin, and my uncle kept smoking and listening to the song.
The only thing that changed, were the thoughts of these men.
As the rhythm of the song became steady, so did their heart beats. Their minds cleared and everyone’s thoughts, love, spirits and ambitions became focused on one point, one singular aim, one unified goal. These men had a great responsibility on their shoulders – the responsibility of guarding the land which had given them an identity, a sense of belonging and a respectable life.
They were guarding their country, their homeland.
This incident has left a deep impact on me since the first time I heard it. Even today when I sit in my bunker at night and recall my uncle’s story, I always end up misty-eyed. My love for my country is hereditary and reverberates in my chest with the beating of my heart.
National and patriotic songs had a great influence on the Pakistani nation. My grandfather, a war veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars, told us that once during his night-guard round of the defences, a new recruit of his company was talking to his friend. He said,
“Noor Jehan de ganey sun ke fauj te bharti te hogya, par jadon lardna pa gya te ki howe ga?”
(Noor Jehan’s songs made me join the army but what will I do if I actually have to fight).
There have been many instances in our history that have made me believe that a common man is not very different from a Pakistani soldier. After all, he shares the same worries, the same fears, the same love and the same patriotism for his country.
As the news of the Indian assault on Lahore reached the city, the people of Lahore actually marched to the border to fight for their country, shoulder-to-shoulder with their army. It did not matter that they did not wear a uniform because the passion of a patriot is not measured by his attire. My grandfather once told me that an old man who had volunteered to come and fight at the Wagah border and had said,
“Pehley meri chaati te goli wajey gi, jey mai mar gya, pher merey weeran tak pohchand gi.”
(First the bullet will hit my chest, and if I die, then it will reach the soldiers.)
And I can never forget the story that my grandfather told me about a young girl standing and waving to the army convoy going to the Wagah border, with her doll in her hand. My grandfather was part of that convoy. There were people all around busy buying halwa puri – the conventional breakfast of Lahore –but once they spotted the convoy, they started running along the vehicles handing over whatever they had to the soldiers as a token of love.
The little girl ran up to my grandfather’s jeep and offered her only possession – her doll. Arm stretched, the girl called out to the young officer,
“Sir ji, guddi le lo, sir jee, guddi le lo.”
(Sir, please take the doll.)
This patriotism, this sense of owning soldiers as your own sons, is a wonderful feeling and I can proudly say that I am lucky and honoured to be a soldier and protector of this nation and this country. I truly believe the words,
“Mere mehboob watan, tujh pe agar jan ho nisar mein ye yamjhoon ga, thikaane laga sarmaya-e-tan.”
(Oh my beloved homeland, if I die for you today, I believe that my purpose in life will be achieved.)
For a soldier, this piece of land means much more than I can ever explain in words. For us soldiers, this land is sacred. Its soil is as dear to us as our mother’s embrace. Its winds, whether they blow hot or cold, remind us of our mother’s caresses. Everything about it – its fragrances, its diversity, its terrain – reminds us of our homes and our mothers.
Pakistan is not merely a country for its soldiers. It is our determination to look the enemy in the eye and stand our ground; it is our will to fight until we give our life. It is our courage to face an enemy stronger than us, and that too, with such valour that he dares not set an evil glance on our borders.
This is a country where mothers, wives and sisters happily send off their sons, husbands and brothers to fight for their homeland and pray that they embrace death before dishonour.
This is a country where a mother’s eyes swell with tears of gratitude to the Almighty that her son has died a martyr’s death when her son’s body comes home wrapped in the crescent.
This is a country where a soldier’s death does not lower the spirit of the nation. Instead, it breathes new life into it.
We, the sons of the soil, fight for it until our last breath because this country, this land, this soil is our heritage, our spirit and our pride.
Last week, I read the poignant account of Major Shafaat, an ethnic Hazara in the Pakistani Army who suffered from discrimination and recently lost his life. The most telling words came at the very end:
“Maybe he deserved to die because he naively believed himself to be a Pakistani. But in today’s Pakistan, he was just a Hazara.”
Pakistan is a nation rife with division, and nationality is rarely a unifying label. Citizens like Major Shafaat are identified by (or self-identify with) ethnicity. For others, it is religion. According to a 2009 British Council poll of Pakistani youth, 75 per cent describe themselves as Muslims rather than Pakistanis.
Another fault-line of this fragmentation is provincial. Manifestations range from the Punjab/Sindh rivalry to separatist sentiment in Balochistan and recent calls for new Seraikiand Mohajirprovinces.
In all this, the notion of nationalism – a people united by nationality – is missing. The notion of patriotism – love of one’s country – is absent as well. It is difficult to love one’s country if allegiances are to sub-national entities instead of to the nation itself.
Does this mean Pakistanis are not patriotic?
Not at all. There is plenty of patriotism in Pakistan.
Think of the acclaim lavished on Pakistani heroes–from philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi and cricket star Shahid Afridito LUMS innovator Umar Saif and the late child prodigy Arfa Karim. When these figures achieve their greatest feats, they are cheered not only by their ethnic, religious, or provincial kin, but by Pakistanis across the board.
Consider as well the warmth and pride with which Pakistanis regard their country. I recently came across a series of YouTube videos with the theme of “beautiful Pakistan.” They highlight the country’s physical beauty and architectural treasures – from glaciers in the Northern Areas and the forests of Swat to the ancient Indus city of Mohandejaro. Another video emphasises Pakistan’s abundant supplies of salt, copper, and gold.
Linking this all together is a celebration of the essence of Pakistan – its people, its land, and its resources. What goes unmentioned is the political sphere – amplifying how Pakistani patriotism is often apolitical.
Yet not always. Recall those powerful images of Pakistan recently posted by Nadeem F. Paracha. They strikingly depict the country from the 1950s to early 1970s, an era that, politically speaking, was drastically different from today. What we see in these images is wholly incongruous with contemporary realities: American actors filming a movie in Lahore; scantily-clad tourist riding camels on Clifton Beach; hippies relaxing at a tea house in Balochistan.
The online responses to NFP’s images were warm and nostalgic, with many readers expressing a longing for the relatively halcyon days of the pre-Zia era, when tolerance and diversity were more widespread than today. These reactions suggest that Pakistani patriotism today may betray a pining for a kind of politics that last existed several decades ago.
Of course, unhappiness with today’s political situation should not be mistaken for a lack of patriotism. When I meet with Pakistanis here in Washington, and I hear them complain about the spread of militancy, state corruption, and Islamabad’s mishandling of economic policy, it is clear that their criticism does not extend beyond these ugly political realities. They do not lambaste Pakistan as a nation; they lambaste what afflicts the nation.
I do not intend here to make blanket statements about Pakistani patriotism. To be sure, some Pakistanis define their patriotism in chauvinistic ways, and look not to heroes such as Edhi, but rather to the likes of Zaid Hamid. Meanwhile, persecuted minorities have every right not to be patriotic in a nation that treats them as third-class citizens.
And for many more Pakistanis, patriotism is a meaningless term. Millions are preoccupied on a daily basis with meeting their basic needs for survival, and simply have no time to think about patriotism. For them, such lofty thoughts amount to abstract luxuries. They fixate on more pressing “p” words like patronage and poverty.
Yet none of this can deny the fact that Pakistanis are proud of their country (a 2010 Herald poll finds that nearly 80 per cent of Pakistani youth are “proud to be Pakistani”). This is why there is such concern about Pakistan’s “image problem” abroad. The world’s reductive perceptions of the country filter out heroes like Edhi, and ignore the geographical diversity, the arts, cuisine, and other dimensions of the nation cherished by the citizenry.
Several years ago, I wrote an op-edon the roots of this image problem, and how it can be overcome. I received responses from readers across Pakistan, expressing their gratefulness that an American shared their concerns.
Those readers’ sentiments exemplify patriotism in Pakistan: Love for a much-maligned nation, whose political problems increasingly drown out what makes the country a special place.
Michael Kugelman is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @michaelkugelman
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.