Revolt and Revolution in Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

In Pakistan, revolution is confused with revolt. A revolution sweeps away the old order; a revolt just replaces the faces at the top. As we have discovered, a revolt is not enough. No matter how often the system is restarted by new saviors, it converges to the same outcome that is compatible with the attributes of the old order.

The principal attribute of the old order is stark social inequality in which the majority is dependent on a tiny minority for access to services and basic rights. This kind of hierarchical order is compatible with patron-client forms of governance which is really what we have had in the guise of democracy. Everything we observe confirms that our rulers consider themselves monarchs while the ruled think of themselves as subjects.

Years ago I asked a peasant why they did not elect an honest representative instead of the incumbent criminal. He took about a second to pose a counter question: Would the honest person be able to get his son out of the police lockup or employed in public service? People are not stupid; they understand well the distribution of power in which they have to survive.

A revolution would transform subjects into sovereign citizens; monarchs into accountable representatives. This kind of revolution has yet to occur in Pakistan. The political order has not changed; the departing British left the reins in the hands of the same social class that held power under it.

Is a revolution a la the French Revolution possible in Pakistan? No, because there is no intellectual ferment that accompanies and energizes systemic change. Adrift between faith in divine providence and charismatic saviors, Pakistan seems set to follow its pied pipers into anarchy and oblivion.

This comment appeared in the September issue of Herald Magazine and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. At the time Anjum Altaf was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

For more on this subject, see What Kind of Revolution Do We Need in South Asia?

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  • Vikram
    Posted at 08:09h, 26 October Reply

    This article evades a central entity, the Pakistani military. If the distribution of power has not budged in Pakistan since the end of colonial rule, then the military shoulders a much bigger portion of the blame than the civilian leaders, no matter how ‘corrupt’.

    The diffusion of political maturity among the population is a slow process, but long periods of military rule are a major impediment to the development of this maturity. It is the vote and the voice that makes people citizens, not revolutions.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 10:59h, 26 October

      Vikram: You are right. This comment was for a section in Herald where several people answered the question “What does revolution mean to you?” in about 350 words. I chose to focus on elaborating the distinction between revolution and revolt with reference to the ongoing dharnas in Islamabad.

      Any complete account of politics cannot leave out the role of the military as any number of posts on this blog would testify. Still, one can disagree with your conclusion that “It is the vote and the voice that makes people citizens, not revolutions.” This is only the case in British colonies where the departing rulers left an electoral system. Everywhere else, the vote had to be won via a revolution. Progress is so slow in South Asia, even in India, because there has been no social revolution and the roots of the dynastic and monarchical system continue to survive. The vote and voice will get people to citizenship but it will take a very long time.

      It is another matter whether an 18th century type revolution is any longer possible in our times. This was discussed in an earlier post on the blog:

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