What Constitutes a Stable Society?

By Adnan Syed

Pakistan is passing through a vicious negative feedback loop that is beginning to gather momentum. The vicious circle is a result of country’s inability to provide for the basic individual rights of its citizens. Combine that with a burgeoning population, and the rampant nationalist tensions within the society that have been suppressed in the name of religious identity, Pakistan is staring at a nightmarish scenario in the coming decade. Pakistan needs to realize that the existential threat is coming from the failure of its society and not due to the external influences that consume majority of the resources of our nation. Unless we start spending on providing for the four basic rights to our citizens, the chaos will just feed on itself in the years to come.

This is the second part of the two part writeup that should be treated as a loud musing. I have stayed largely away from the religious vs. secularism debate as the immediate concern is to establish the rule of law and the secularism debate takes us away from the immediate objectives; provide for the protection of life, property and honour of each and every of the individuals. Needless to say that the demographic outlook for Pakistan, widening fault lines across the sub-nationalities and the vagueness about the role of religion in the affairs of the state is presenting a dire outlook for the state of Pakistan.


What Constitutes a Stable Society?

The ingredients of a stable society are not that complicated. Over the past century Europe, North America, East Asia, and Australia have managed to stabilize their societies by taking care of rather simple processes. Europe built its war shattered economy in a period of less than a decade, showing that good things beget good things, on a rather quick basis. The negative vicious circle can be replaced with a positive feedback loop. But the key is to avoid falling off the cliff. The key is to work with the present infrastructure and strengthen it to an extent that it becomes self sustaining. In that respect Pakistan is not starting from ground zero. It has a reasonably educated middle class that is finding it hard to channel its resources towards a prosperous society since it has to fend for its very survival on a daily basis. Pakistan has a semblance of democracy and the rule of law. Pakistan has the freedom of speech. The building blocks of a successful society are still there, though in a rapid state of neglect and decay.

A stable society starts with every member of the society having the basic four rights for each and every individual member of the society: 1) Protection of life 2) Protection of property and honour, 3) Freedom of speech as long as it does not endanger the first two protections, and 4) Access to healthcare and education.

These four basic rights form the cornerstone of any civilized society. Once they are well defined, the priorities that enable these rights become well defined as well. The first two protections cannot be made possible unless the government starts developing the institutions that ensure these protections. These institutions are primarily the police, and the judicial system. Pakistan needs to start investing in its police services, with a goal of having a ratio of police personnel to the population not falling below a certain level. The present antiquated police system present in the cities and towns is grossly inadequate to form any basis of reasonable deterrence. One of the most comprehensive documents on the state of the Rule of Law was prepared by the USAID in 2008 that outlined the woeful state of the police in Pakistan.[1]. It points out that the inadequate attention towards the courts means that Pakistani courts are constantly underfunded, seldom attract better talent and remain mired in opaque bureaucracy. Rule of Law is a nice term for everyone to say. But it does not happen by itself. It requires resources and dedication by the society. And a society cannot move forward until it clearly understands that the four basic pillars are the first and foremost responsibility of any society towards itself, any where in the world.

But We Are Not the Only Ones in the Doghouse, Are We?

A simple question that the rulers and some folks ask is: What if we are in the doghouse? India and other third world countries have the same problems and are surviving. We shall too.

The problem first and foremost with this argument is that this comparative analysis is self defeating, as any horrible situation can be justified based on any other example across the globe. Second, India has not had a problem of a major fault line running across the society’s ethnic and nationalist seams that Pakistan faces right now.  Third, by managing to keep the democratic tradition continuously alive, India has had a steam release valve that never allowed its internal doubts and fears to metastisize and letting India become a proxy training ground for religious or nationalist militancy. The religious bogey used by Pakistan is coming back to haunt it in two major provinces, NWFP and Punjab where targeted killings and open challenge to the state authority are becoming a norm. The same religious bogey is indirectly affecting the provinces of Baluchistan and Sind where major segment of the population is feeling its provincial and ethnic rights severely threatened. On top of all of it, a faltering economy is threatening to tilt the balance in favour of anarchist extremists and can plunge Pakistan into an absolute hell hole. If economy goes, Pakistan will have hard time recollecting itself from the nightmarish scenario that awaits it.

Add to that mix the massive poverty and the parallel system established on the religious lines and here we have a recipe for disaster. Pakistan is in far worse shape than many third world countries as its very inability to fulfil the basic social contract with its citizens is resulting in the very distrust towards the idea of Pakistan itself.

But Democracy is Slow, isn’t it?

Yes it is. But it is a far better alternative than the military autocracy or the benign messiah that everyone hopes for but never gets.

The benign messiah term is a misnomer. This concept runs counter to the very idea of checks and balances that all and each of us require, whether we are in power or not. The percentage of benign messiahs compared to the misguided autocrats is so low that it makes for an extremely unattractive choice. For one example of Singapore (a small rather homogenous island state), we have dozens of military dictators in South Asia, Africa and South America who have run amok with their powers. Most of them ascended on their thrones with some level of popular support. Yet unbridled power went to their heads and when they left (voluntary or otherwise), the country was in far worse shape than before.

We still need a Top down Approach….

The biggest problem that a democratic setup in a third world country faces is the level of comfort that its rulers develop with the status-quo. Bad governance is fine, they reason, if it means that the rulers can stay in power. Small problems are allowed to turn into bigger crises. Back in 1954, Justice Munir Kiyani Report was scathing in its conclusion: The anti Ahmadi riots that started in late 1953 were a rather small problem to begin with. This problem required at most a district magistrate and a few police officials. All they had to do was to act upon the people who were calling for destruction of property and life of a supposedly non-Muslim sect. The police had to simply move in, book the miscreants of the charges and prosecute them in the court of law. Instead, the Daultana government kept on using the rioting to pressure Khwaja Nazimuddin Government, allowing the rioting to go unchecked. The situation gradually went out of control resulting in a major loss of life and property, and an eventual imposition of the regional Martial Law.

Democracy is an evolutionary process, but it weeds its non performing participants out on a rather slow basis. India is a good example where the persistent democracy finally is resulting in the overall social and economic turnaround of the whole country. The problem with Pakistan is the frequent discontinuation of democracy. It stops the evolution, kills the gradual pruning of the ineffective lot, takes the focus away from the real issues and sets country back to the square one.

But Pakistan need not pass through the evolutionary process from the square one. History is seldom kind towards nations who rarely take a proactive approach towards fixing their societies. Pakistan needs a vision, and there not need to be just one leader to incorporate that vision. The vision may or may not encompass all of the following suggestions, but someone has to start somewhere.

1)       Pakistan must start looking inwards if it has to survive. Too much of Pakistani resources are spent against the external threats that have taken away the basic resources from its general population. The failure of the society to provide for itself is causing it to implode. Deep ethnic fissure lines are widening in the absence of a viable social contract that anyone neither sees nor experiences.

The change may not have to be abrupt. But Pakistan must start allocating progressively more of its resources towards fulfilling the four basis rights that each and every of its citizens demand.

2)       The political expediency of its various rulers has always played havoc with the effective administration. Some sort of constitutional guarantee may ensure that the police and the judiciary are reasonably independent of the political interfering, as well as remain adequately funded at all times. The same constitutional amendment may ensure that the country will spend at least 30% of its budget towards strengthening the judicial institutions, providing free education up to the high school level and dispense basic healthcare for all of the citizens.

3)       An excellent example for Pakistan to follow would be some thing similar to the Charter of Fundamental Rights that many developed nations have introduced and made part of their constitutions. This charter spells out the inalienable rights of each member of the society and compels different governments from all political spectrums to adhere to a shared goal for that country across various points in time. Each and every individual can invoke this charter in the courts if he or she feels that the fundamental rights enshrined in the charter are violated by the state, group or any other individual.

4)       One of the most effective checks and balances against democratic autocracy is guaranteeing the freedom of speech. Many countries have strict laws limiting the number of years anyone can serve as head of the state. This simple rule serves to discourage personality cult derived politics and introduces continuous fresh perspective into the national political discourse. General Musharraf introduced this measure for political expediency hence the measure did not get the traction it needed. The good law suffered due to autocratic credentials of General Musharraf, plus his intentions were not just to limit the number of terms of any head of state. He was specifically looking to bar the previous two heads of state who happened to be his chief political rivals as well.

5)       This brings us to the final point that only a democratic government can introduce these sweeping changes. For laws to be followed, they need to be validated in the eyes of the population. For all the good intentions of the military dictators, no measure is legitimate in the long run the eyes of the common man. Only the mainstream parties like PPP and PML-N can work towards this vision. Too fanciful of an idea? Maybe. Already we have seen with NFC and the 18th Amendments that both parties can talk to each other and arrive at a shared solution, if the situation calls for a dialogue. A stable Pakistan is in the interest of both of these parties. A self imploding Pakistan will ensure the implosion and anonymity of both of these parties as well. Greatness is not about going out and reaching it. Sometimes the historical cataclysms hand over the opportunity to the rulers. Abraham Lincoln did not go out of his way to declare slavery as illegal. But when the history presented that opportunity he did not let go of the opportunity.

 History is a merciless, yet a fair judge. It rewards the astute and adaptable nations. Pakistan is not an inherently doomed nation. Its future is what it will make of it. The window is narrow but it is open. It is up to us to avail of it today, or rue for it tomorrow.


[1] http://www.usaid.gov/pk/downloads/dg/Pakistan_ROL_11-26-08.pdf


Filed under Democracy, human rights, Identity, India, Islamabad, Islamism, musings, Pak Tea House, Pakistan, Religion, Rights, violence

11 responses to “What Constitutes a Stable Society?

  1. lengthy but pertinent, and well-written !

  2. Sher Zaman

    Societies are built by people and only people can fill the loopholes. Will is necessary to pursue such goals and if we are not willing, no one can actually change our destiny.

  3. Balaji

    and I thought US gave a 3 year extension to the Pakistan Army chief.

    long live democracy!

  4. libertarian

    The problem was set up well in the previous post. The purported solution is too hazy and high-level to be of immediate use. The situation demands a todo list that mere mortals can act on. Rather than grand directives based on lofty principles that have as much of a chance of success as an ice-cube in hell in the current fog of war.

    Sorry to be so harsh – just a wee bit disappointed at the lack of actionable suggestions.

  5. libertarian

    In the spirit of constructive debate here are some suggestions:

    *real* civilian land reform – goal is to reduce indentured labor. The faujis will not realistically hand over their privilege right away (they have appropriated > 12% of Pakistan’s land area under some wacky British-era Army Act!)
    *real* primary education reform – goal is useful education (even if it includes the glorious Islamiat and Pakistan Studies)
    *real* higher eduction reform – the goal is to compete in the knowledge economy (not just textiles)
    Allow Indian investment in infrastructure projects (e.g. telco – India is easily the most efficient in the world). The Chinese are only interested in Pakistan for geo-strategic reasons. Indian business will want to make money. Let the banias help out – they’re pretty good at what they do.
    Become the energy gateway between Central Asia and India (hey if the Indus Water Treaty can work, we can have a workable Energy Treaty).
    Stop imploring Allah every time sh*t happens. Because it does. And he doesn’t really give a sh*t either if you don’t help yourself 🙂

  6. rationalist

    to libertarian

    a muslim army is always a land-grab army. may be also a women-grab army. that needs to be urgently researched into. but young women can be grabbed (by older “successful” men) only if a large number of younger men are gotten killed. so the huge emphasis on young-jihadi recruitment with instant-paradise promises. the system is in place since 1400 years. works fine for those at the top. get the younger men killed in the name of a god. then take the lonely-made young women in the name of “protecting” them. such a “successful” system will be defended in the name of this god till the last “man”.

  7. KB

    to irrationalist,
    this is an article on what constitutes a stable society. No need to spread your wings of hatred if you cant get in the debate.

  8. Maryanne Khan

    I thought Mr Syed’s points were rational, well-argued and a fine blueprint for the positioning of thought regarding what a citizen might demand of good governance. These points form the theoretical basics against which action should be measured. I don’t think he set out to describe specific actions that need to be taken, but a formulation of principles that must be agreed upon at the outset and upon which and against which action of any kind needs to be compared.

    (Interesting to me is that the principle of ‘honour’ figures so prominently. It’s one of the things about Pakistan that I find most intriguing is the thought that the man (or woman) on the street endows him or herself with an innate sense of having ‘honour.’ This is seen as an inviolable right, a sense of self-value that should, by extension, lead to a construct of a nation of people who feel that as individuals they deserve respect. Call it a ‘poetic’ notion– I am a writer, and writers deal in such things — but if the citizens of a nation have such a construct of themselves, they should also acknowledge that others also must be treated with respect. Not a bad basis upon which to construct a society. )

  9. Humane

    I don’t think democracy is the best possible answer in Pakistan. The masses here get emotionally charged easily (remember Bhutto). Just a couple of good speeches about unity and you will be on your way to a successful political career.
    The real answer lies here with education, until people begin to think rationally about politics there is nothing that can be done.

  10. AZW


    Thanks for your comments. Regarding honour, this term is not used here in terms of Eastern or Sub-Continental context. It is a universal term and implies that all human beings have the right to be treated with dignity. A simple example would be to have strong libel laws where no one can attribute demeaning or false statement to others. Another would be minimum wage laws where rich cannot exploit the poor just because the rich can and the poor can be.


    I agree that the suggestions are rather quite top-heavy. But once the broad vision is in place, specifics start falling in place. I am concerned here with establishing the basic fundamentals of a progressive and stable society, which I suspect that most of the third world rulers neither understand nor wish to understand.


    Give me a name of one humane autocrat (an oxymoron term by the way) and I will give you names of dozen autocrats who have absolutely destroyed their economies and countries due to their absolute powers. Then ask yourself if these are the odds that you will never take in your life, why do you subject your poor country to the same odds.

  11. Humane

    The odds of getting a a good autocrat anywhere in the world are low and indeed people like Zia ul Haq have brought about destruction. But what about the publicly elected governments of Zardari and former premier Nawaz Sharif who did little except amassing wealth.
    The Pakistani masses sometimes are needed to be told what to do.
    Ayub’s and Musharraf’s eras atleast brought economic growth. Just compare “the decade of development” with “the decade of democracy”.
    I think people will rather risk Kayani’s government than another “decade of democracy”.
    I do not oppose democracy in any way but I don’t think Pakistan is ready for it.