Sleeping Beauty: Pakistan’s Civil Society

By Anjum Altaf

If there were a last few shreds of respect clinging to the body of the Pakistani state the floods have washed them away. The state stands naked and drenched in its helplessness. The real question, however, is the following: Why did we ever believe that there were some redeeming shreds in the first place?

The state has been naked for a long time. Just put your ear to the ground – millions of echoes and re-echoes will reverberate and deliver the judgment without an iota of misgiving: “All our rulers are thieves.” If there has been any one overwhelming sentiment in Pakistan, it is this: its rulers, one and all, have been, and are, knaves and rascals who do not have the welfare of the citizens at heart.

What has Pakistani civil society done with this verdict delivered with such unanimity and clarity? Precious nothing, beyond wishing for and cheering the next patriotic autocrat who arrives with a mandate from heaven riding roughshod over rules made by mere mortals. And then repenting and praying for the return of ‘democracy.’

This kind of naïve response cannot even be excused the first time but to repeat it mindlessly suggests either a lack of seriousness or a mental disability that precludes serious thought. What the ex-England cricket captain, Nasser Hussain, is reputed to have said about Pakistan’s cricket could well be applied to the whole country: “Pakistan have gone in the brain.”

No doubt it is also symptomatic of an alienation from its own heritage and literature for it was a over a century and half ago that Pakistani civil society’s otherwise revered poet, Ghalib, penned the following words:

chaltaa huuN thoRii duur har ik tez-rau ke saath
pahchaantaa nahiiN huuN abhii raahbar ko maiN

[I go along a little way with every single swift walker
I do not yet recognize the guide]

Whatever the reason, Pakistani civil society has either not attempted or has not been able to come to grips with the real issues in any systematic or concerted fashion. These questions revolve around the necessity of arriving at a system of representative governance that works for all the citizens of the country and that is focused primarily on the needs and aspirations of its most excluded members.

Some of the questions are obvious and stare one in the face: Why is it that citizens holding such a strong belief in the lack of morality of their rulers keep voting them back into office? What kinds of choices are offered to them that make such outcomes possible? Why do so many people with criminal records get elected? What kinds of electoral rules make this possible? How come political groupings are like fiefdoms rather than parties? How come politics is so blatantly dynastic in a democratic age? What kind of organizational requirements make this negation of democracy possible? How come elections can be so easily manipulated? What kind of failures of autonomy and accountability make this possible? What are types of people who get appointed to positions of public sector leadership? What kinds of failures of oversight facilitate this abuse of public trust? What happens to the funds raised by the state and entrusted to it for national development? What failures of monitoring enable the loot of national wealth?  And, so on.

These kinds of questions and their possible answers need to be the focus of national debate if the steep decline is to be arrested. Dreaming about patriotic autocrats or some kind of mythical democracy that would emerge fully-born from an electoral exercise would prove just as ephemeral as test match victory by the Pakistani cricket establishment that has rotted to its core.

These questions have piled up due to years of neglect by Pakistan’s civil society which has to take the brunt of the blame for the sad and disgraceful state of affairs prevailing in the country today. Heart-rending pleas in international newspapers for donors not to lose sight of the recent humanitarian tragedy and to ignore the kleptocracy and incompetence of the Pakistani state carry little credibility. They do not mask the fact that the grief-struck representatives of Pakistani civil society have themselves lost sight of the humanitarian tragedy in the country. This tragedy has not emerged with the floods or the earthquake. It has been decades in the making during which conditions have festered that have rendered the majority of the population so vulnerable, the systems that protect them so fragile, and the rulers who manage them so venal and callous in their disregard.

Pakistanis take immense pride in their individual response to social calamities. But these impressive displays of concentrated charity do not make up for the years of benign neglect that exacerbate the tragedies. Emotion is not a substitute for thought and money without ideas will never prove a panacea.

Ghalib’s message is relevant but needs to be reinterpreted in accordance with the times. What Pakistan needs is not a patriotic and benevolent guide, of whatever stripe, but a system that ensures that its guides are answerable to the people at all times. Such a system is not impossible to achieve but it requires shedding illusions of greatness, an acknowledgment of responsibility, tolerance for debate and contrary opinions, coming together on an agenda that prioritizes the welfare of the marginalized, and an activism in the service of a goal larger than the interests of the self.

Pakistan’s civil society has slept through many wake-up calls and is likely to sleep through this one as well once the waters recede. It is because in comparison to the excluded majority it remains privileged and the encroachment on its privileges occurs at a glacial pace despite the string of tragedies afflicting the country. Pakistan’s civil society is unlikely to be swept away but it will gradually run out of room to navigate. At that time it will be too late to turn the tide.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on September 7, 2010 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. For another comment on Pakistan’s civil society, see Pakistan is Sinking: Time for Tough Love? by Walter Russell Mead.


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