Civil Society of Pakistan

VIEW: A long haul —Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Daily Times, December 18, 2007

The civil society of Pakistan is today engaged in a defining, historic struggle for constitutionalism, independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Long underestimated for its skills, civic capacities and social roots, the civil society has emerged as the most vibrant and mobilised entity in the country. It is the modern face of Pakistan, not just in its ideological complexion but also in terms of expressing its socio-political objectives.

Like other civil societies around the world, its goal is not to capture power but to make power responsible and responsive, and limit its exercise under the Constitution. In other words, it works as a societal check on power and on those who hold public office. Pakistani civil society has a much larger agenda than its counterparts in other countries where fundamental political and constitutional issues have been settled.

The first task before the civil society of Pakistan is to get democracy back on track and in its true form. Democracy has universal norms and standards and by using them we can objectively differentiate between false and true democracy.

A true democracy is based on the universal ideas of popular sovereignty, constitutional supremacy with an independent judiciary serving as the guardian and interpreter of the constitution as well as the defender of fundamental freedoms. It is heartening that women and men, young and old, belonging to all sectors of society have embraced these values and rightly believe that national honour and citizens’ pursuit of a good life depends on these values.

Frankly, there are no other routes to individual self-actualisation, social harmony, peace and stability except by re-rooting the Pakistani republic in the constitutional ideas of its founders. If those ideals have become vague even after six decades of independence, the fault lies with the rulers and individual interests. For the rulers, nothing is more important or sacrosanct than their interests, and power is simply a means to advance those interests even as the rhetoric remains laced with references to national interest and slogans like ‘Pakistan comes first’.

Pakistani civil society and similar social movements fighting for democracy in other countries cannot accept declarations and claims about restoration of democracy or its growth. The test of sincerity of any such efforts would lie in their practice, not in what the rulers would like us to believe.

Presenting false democracy as true and justifying the suspension of the constitution and the removal of elected governments for the building democracy is not a subjective issue and therefore there can be no two views on what is what. Pakistan’s political history clearly demonstrates how individual dictators were inspired by their own ambitions and self-image as saviours to impose themselves and their will on the nation.

Pakistani civil society has not been conned by Pervez Musharraf when he says that everything he has done, particularly since March 9, was meant to strengthen democracy in the country. On the contrary, all these actions were meant to keep him in power by creating legal and constitutional covers for him. For this reason, even the lifting of emergency rule and restoration of the constitution has not excited any substantial sections of civil society except those who are allied with certain political parties.

On this issue, there should be clarity about what civil society is and what it is not. It is not part of any political party and cannot be involved with any individual or group that seeks to gain or retain power. Like political parties, it works in the public sphere. But its aim is to discipline political power and influence its exercise in public interest from the outside, not from the inside. If some political groups or individuals with political affiliations join civil society protests or movements, they may be welcome but they cannot be part of civil society until they establish their neutrality and non-partisanship.

This is an issue that the civil society of Pakistan is likely to face in the coming weeks, months and even years. Those with political inclinations may quit the movement to explore material prospects with the political parties or may even feel ideologically more comfortable with the post-election political arrangements. That is perfectly fine and their choices should be respected.

But the current social movement is more than the issue of which party comes to power. Yes, it shares the democratic ideal of the political society, but its immediate concern right now is to restore the constitutional bases of democracy in the country. What are those bases and where can we locate them?

The foundations or founding principles of democracy are in the supremacy of the constitution, separation of powers and a genuinely representative government. These are old ideas and have been at the foundations of mature democracies for centuries. We in Pakistan cannot think of any different foundations for democracy than the ones tried in other parts of the world. Pakistani exceptionalism on religious, cultural or social grounds is just an escape from our collective duty to civilise our country and root the state and power in popular legitimacy.

The foundational principles of democracy are embedded in universal norms and standards that differentiate modern societies from medieval ones. The brave women, men and young people in the media, law and other professions continue to protest because they are the true harbingers of the change that is quietly taking place in Pakistan; a change that the old guard is so uncomfortable with. Their best hope is that the social movement would fade away with people voting in the elections.

Perhaps. But not until the foundational issues of democracy in Pakistan are resolved. Even if we get there, the quest for a free democratic society would not end as far as the civil society is concerned.

One of the many makers of modernity and modern civilisation is the rule of law. Its protection cannot be left to the familiar violators or to the good intentions of the political class. The only way the rule of law can be established is through vigilance, activism and civic engagement.

That is the role of the civil society, and it is a long haul.

The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at


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