Wake Up Call For Civil Society

By Brigadier (ret) Simon Samson Sharaf

Pakistan’s political establishment is back to its old ways of self preservation, aggrandisement and nepotism.  What makes the present malaise different from the 80s and 90s is that all major political parties are in power with stakes in the system. The architects of the elections in 2008 had drawn a crude power sharing formula that supports back scratching and keeps them in denial.

As witnessed in Karachi, the political showdown continues through political statements and unleashing of proxies with complete disregard to the value of life and property.  The coalition heavyweights continue to trample grass whichever way they interact. The time is not far when the political anarchy thus orchestrated will overshadow the rule of law and eclipses the notion of an independent judiciary and good governance. In the endgame the beneficiaries of NRO and loan write offs will go unchecked and the power of Zardari’s people will be vindicated. In this entire drama, if the military breaks precedence, who will take responsiblity to fill the political vacuum and clear this mayhem?

History of Pakistan is replete with examples that this Trojan of a mindset described in my previous essay, has the insatiable capability to permeate and control any movement.  The present crises manifest how a vibrant movement of fundamental rights and justice led by the civil society has been manipulated by political forces for their own ends. The power of black coats has slowly degenerated into a symbol of power that does not respect law. The nascent and aggressive media has assumed the self styled role representing this society and even calls itself an organ of the state; a constitutional aberration. Will the civil society of Pakistan resign itself to the fold of the 60% silent masses to doom the country and its people; or is it time for it to rise once again to fill a vacuum for positive change?

But what is this Civil Society? It appears as a loose term to describe activities outside the ambit of the state machinery. The Pakistani media has confined it to describe the non governmental reaction led by lawyers to the sacking of the Chief Justice of Pakistan while President Zardari refers to it as political jokers.

For philosophers like Georg Hegel and the revolutionary theorist Karl Marx, civil society was an inclusive concept of ‘society minus the state’. The philosophers and political scientists of the enlightenment opine that origins of the concept of civil society lie in key phases of modernity wherein philosophy and political economy began to distinguish systematically between the spheres of state and society. In the twentieth century the development of civil society is seen as a significant criterion of the development of democracy. The fact that no two social scientists agree on a common definition reflects the reality that in each culture, civil society is a reflection of the traditions, conventions and codes of behaviour outside the legal hierarchal structure of the state.

But South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular has followed a different evolutionary route resisting modernity. The fact that the region has witnessed prolonged rules by invaders through loose governance helped characterise hybrid forms and multiple inheritances giving rise to unresolved struggles between the practices and values of pre-capitalist society; and new modes of social life, between authoritarian legacies and democratic aspirations. Pakistan also has more that one historical context related to the evolution of its society, each with its effects in positive and negative.

The many ancient civilisations of Pakistan were highly evolved, globally dominant and civic. Advent of Islam and rich Sufi traditions resulted in a tolerant and progressive society. The role of village panchaits, jirgas, barter, care of widows and orphans, and collective participation in celebrations and mourning are aspects that are still practised.  Colonialism brought modernity and a new concept of governance through divide and rule. A new class that emerged was feudal and opportunist in character and evolved an exclusive fiefdom of its own.

Pakistani society inherited a strong tradition of progressive citizen organisations with their roots in culture, tradition and Islamic philanthropy. All India Muslim League and ‘Idea of Pakistan’ evolved out of the civic movement of Muhammadan Education Conference.  The concept of the modern nation-state introduced by the British crystallised the notion of Pakistan. It is distinct in the sense that the concept of a nation evolved much before the geographical boundaries for Pakistan could be drawn.  As time has passed, the state has gradually usurped the concept of the nation to entrench itself in all facets of civil life.

In a resource starved post 1947 Pakistan, it was mostly the civic organisations that took on the onerous tasks of caring and rehabilitating refugees. Post Qaid-e-Azam, the role of these organisations was marginalised as the mindset and the state machinery took control of almost all spheres. With passage of time, the democratic traditions weakened, and dream of a Pakistan with progressive, egalitarian and tolerant society turned sour. Pakistan rapidly descended from a country evolved by its civil society to one governed by a hyperactive state that left no room for others to function. Occupation of maximum space by the state with no capability to administer and deliver sucked the people into many dark holes within the culture.  Waderaism (fiefdoms), misuse of Madaris for political motivation, tribal justice, drug and land mafias, middleman marketing cartels, private armies and militancy are but to name a few.

This descent to black holes has been chaotic and damaging. Bhutto’s populism deprived civic organisations of maximum space and rather strengthened elites and primordial forces. People reacted by low turnouts in elections, invitation to military interventions and formation of a non committal silent majority. The result has been a critical deficit in social capital particularly towards human resource development and organisational accountability. There has also been a massive exodus reflected in the views of Pakistani Diaspora spread world over.

But there are brave hearts. LUMS, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital, Orangi Pilot Project, the Edhi Trust, the Al-Shifa Trust, Sahara for Life Trust, Layton-Rahmatulla Benevolent Trust, the Citizens Foundation, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Riphah University, FC College, Christian missionary institutions  and thousands of other smaller, little known philanthropic and public service organizations and NGOs are examples that all Pakistanis are not silent.

Most recently, the reaction of civil society to the 2005 earthquake and translocation of people from Swat was outstanding. The entire country and civic organisations swarmed to the troubled areas with whatever assistance they could bring.  During all suicide bombings and shootouts, volunteers and ambulances of the civil society out number the official recue efforts.

Pakistani civil society is still alive and vibrant. The people of Pakistan need a new social contract that strengthens the rule of law, good governance and Pakistan. The civil society needs to galvanise and throw up new leadership capable of exerting relentless pressure on the government and political parties. The silent majority has to venture out of their homes and vote for honest people and political parties. People need to reassert control over the state and reoccupy space they have ceded. If they do, the coming election results in Punjab and the local bodies will be entirely different. That’s when the next phase of true Nation Building will begin.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Wake Up Call For Civil Society

  1. ylh

    Brigadier Simon Samson Sharaf retired on Aaj TV at 7 pm.

  2. Sac

    “The civil society needs to galvanise and throw up new leadership capable of exerting relentless pressure on the government and political parties.”

    Respectfully, the armed forces need to stop interfering in the civil society, regardless of what they do, and accept it’s place as a tool of the said society and nothing more. Any ‘civil’ leader who dares to challenge the status quo is tossed aside like garbage so I do not see what the honourable brigadier expects.

    He mentions the “weakening” of democratic institutions. What, pray tell, might have caused that? He mentions nary a word of the ‘spectacular’ contributions to stability and democracy that were made in its 33 years under military rule. I am tired of ‘servants of the state’ coming and telling the masses of the conditions their democracy ‘experiment’ might succeed. If the brigadier wants new leadership I propose going out and voting in the next election.

  3. rex minor

    If I was a retired Brigadier General I would take a walk with my Dog ( if I have one) in the woods and remember the good old days of the military Rule. For good or bad, please let the Civilian Govt. tackle with the mess the so called Generals have left.

    If this Govt. survives and is replaced by a new civilian one then the country is on the way to covalesce.

  4. stuka

    Samson saab, stop selling snake oil. What positive contribution did the Pakistan Armed forces make in years of ruling Pakistan? I spent my growing up years in Indian armed forces bases listening to “Unclejis” like you talk big about fixing society while being absolutely mediocre in their intellect and the achievement of their own professional goals. Hazarding a guess that the Pakistani Fauji is not a superhuman compared to the Indian Fauji, though there was a Pak Army Lt General laying claims to the contrary on a TV show, I would suggest that Pak Army Jarnails spend their free time arranging PT, Parade, Lectures and Tambola nights in their cantonments without worrying about the outside world. After retirement feel free to live in a civil colony or an Armed Forces Housing Society flat and take evening walks. At that time, when you have no actual power over society, feel free to write letters to editors and columns like this bemoaning the fact that the country has gone to the dogs. Then it would be acceptable.

  5. rex minor

    @Stuka, I could not have said it better. It is very difficult to tell a military General, and I did talk with several. that the democratic Govts. are better run by politicians, for better or for worse. The military training ground is usually not a place to develope political leadership for democratic country.