As the clock struck 12, the power supply went off for an hour at my residence in Islamabad. However, there was no dearth of bright lights as the sky soon erupted with a grandiose display of celebratory fireworks marking the beginning of August 14. It made it easier to observe the celebrations with no lights around us; it also presented a sharp symbolic reflection of a society eager to look upwards for satisfaction into bright lights, immune to the now common problems around us. There is no doubt that August 14 is a day to celebrate; and independence is a privilege we all hold dear. However, celebrating the occasion so extravagantly days after a fatal blast in Quetta, inches beyond the boundaries of resilience and into apathy.
Millions of rupees are spent every year on brilliant displays of lights and sounds, millions more are spent on state-sanctioned functions and events. The streets of Islamabad on the eve of Independence Day were either full of vendors selling flags and contraband fireworks, or jiyalas making their way in or out of the annual political circus in town; another dharna. Twitter, that same night, trended with the hashtag #HappyFathersDayIndia. While the fact that the connotations of that hashtag are ironically the opposite of what was intended, which was lost on the people using it; it showed how anti-Indianism is strongly engraved as a major driving force of our nationalist identities. What’s August 14 without bashing India after all?
Lost beneath all these various endeavours was a feeling of constructive collective introspection. I strongly believe this slightly ignorant brand of celebration is derived out of a misguided notion of nationalism pushed down our throats through traditional narratives. Maybe it’s time we rethought nationalism.
Nationalism in the Pakistani context means owning the biggest flag, like the one recently drawn on a hill in Mansehra. It means having the biggest display of fireworks on August 14. To some, it even means taking the silencer off your motorbike and riding through the city harassing women and families alike.
Celebration is good, and God knows this country needs more of it. There is no doubt that August 14 needs to be a publicly celebrated day with involvement from all spheres of society. But it’s time to think beyond the fireworks and milli-naghmay blasting out of woofers.
Maybe if we reclaimed nationalism into branding ourselves as the land of Edhi’s magnanimity, Abdus Salam’s excellence and even Jinnah’s perseverance, we could find that the Pakistani identity extends far beyond displays of lights and sounds. Recognising that a nationalist identity can encompass individual achievement and contribution into everyday problems can go a long way into reshaping how we celebrate independence. Maybe, in a parallel world, we could allot millions of rupees spent on celebrations to food for the poor and homeless, who watched these displays on empty stomachs. Maybe we should be thinking about the families in Quetta, who must have very little to celebrate right now.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2016.