A divided civil society

Civil Society in Pakistan has developed over the years and shown some signs of life and vibrancy but it has not proven to be a collective force that could give strength to democratic principles.

Granted that it has been muzzled and exploited over the years, but it has allowed itself to become a tangle of self-serving vested interest groups. It has become ‘projectised’ by external donor funding and is prey to whims and fads of development aid.

Political affiliations, student and trade groups etc are created on an ethnic and sectarian basis, and the diversity that should be valued has been used to incite hatred and intolerance. Individual identity and space is replaced by groups that fight and commit acts of violence.

Many civil groups have actually caused the splintering and polarisation that has become a hallmark of Pakistani society. Indeed, they have played a key role in fostering and promoting violence, by overplaying differences and keeping social interactions limited to people of their own groups, fomenting rumours and accusations, and inciting violence.

Social and economic issues in Pakistan have multiplied over the years. Poverty levels are rising, at around 40 per cent in 2011, and illiteracy is only better than in Afghanistan, in Asia. A very large proportion of adults are out of jobs.

Many are unemployable, lacking basic skills, whether technical, business or service-oriented. Others cannot find opportunities, except if they move to large cities where civic systems are already overburdened.

The young have lost hope and are looking for a meaning to their lives by whichever means they can find. Surrounded by an environment that rewards sycophancy and under-the-table agreements, they too look for shortcuts to realise their dreams.

hey are recruited by militants, criminals, drug traffickers and peddlers, and resort to violence and acts of aggression. Not the least among such recruiters are political parties and state-run organisations that rely on these individuals as their instruments of violence.

Feudalism continues to strengthen its stranglehold on politics and violence is the norm. Yet, there has been no collective action by civil groups against the pain that millions go through in their daily lives. As the extremely poor and jobless commit suicide, the size of the cabinet swells and daily expenses of official residences run into millions.

Social movements have been rare in Pakistan. Small movements led by leftist and progressive writers and intellectuals did begin during the early years of the military regimes. The state machinery came into action, and these individuals were tortured, jailed or exiled.

The language movement in East Pakistan and the violent repression by the state was instrumental in increasing general distrust of West Pakistanis, culminating in civil war and the breakaway of East Pakistan. No criticism from any civil society group in West Pakistan was forthcoming.

The amputated country was driven into a tussle between religious and so-called secular forces post-1971, and was subsequently governed by alternate military and feudal regimes, with strong religious undertones.

Pakistanis were already known for their anti-women attitudes, and this was exacerbated by deliberate suppression of voices from the minorities and women. In the 1980s, several women organisations and activists led strikes and rallies, but this did not catch the popular attention. Extreme intolerance towards ‘the other’ prevailed.

Civil groups in other countries use general strikes to moblise popular support, protest and demonstrate unrest. In Pakistan these are usually limited to strikes enforced by political and ethnic parties. These are accompanied by acts of violence by the strikers, the law-enforcement agencies and ‘unknown elements’.

Political parties that run militant wings and run on personality cults use fear and violence to intimidate the hapless people into acquiescence or to remain silent. Shops are forced to close down, and transporters keep their vehicles off the streets in fear of being torched.

The lawyers’ movement was a silver lining and the free media brought a ray of hope. There was space at last for civil society to speak up, help sift the superficial from the real issues and engage in so-called controversial but necessary debates. The same was expected of non-government organisations and other groups including teaching institutions.

Unfortunately, each of these three main civic actors has failed. NGOs are busy in welfare or service provision, and have yet to perform a transformatory role for society. They are also bound by donor agendas, lack of funds and cannot make an impact.

Teaching institutions have become merely extended arms of political parties and are themselves struggling with campus violence, lack of capacity and resources. The media vie for the most sensational story of the day.

The governance of the country in recent years has further lowered the level of optimism. Political interference continues unabated; social-sector spending has been diverted towards security and almost all social indicators are stagnant; the power of a few individuals and groups has increased; the middle class has either chosen to flee the country for greener pastures or is weighed under the highest ever inflation and taxes on the salaried. No one dare speak out against the more violent groups for fear of repercussions.

Barring the violence of which we have plenty, which other ingredients that catalysed the storming of the Bastille could help here? Who can reawaken society to demand a new social contract between the state and the citizens? Which are some of the collective actions that could be taken?

It is doubtful that elections in the near future could answer any of these questions. The system has become too twisted and the same people are likely to return.

Unless civil society groups overcome their individual and short-term interests and can get together to start a mass movement, ordinary citizens will be condemned to generations of social and economic disempowerment.

The writer is a development professional who formerly headed an international environmental organisation

Link : A divided civil society

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