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Home > News > Columnists > Mohammad Sajjad

Pakistan: Doomed to a fragile democracy?

December 10, 2007

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On November 3, Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf [Images] suspended the constitution and imposed martial law/emergency in his country. Many remain intrigued by the reasons behind such a high degree of fragility as far as democracy is concerned in this part of South Asia.

When its neighbouring nation and 'step-brother', India, is impressively able to strengthen its democracy through a free press and a strong judiciary, strident social justice, empowering common people through the revolutionary legislation of Right to Information, RTI, the democratic decentralism of Panchayati Raj, a highly contested polity, academically and politically vibrant educational institutions and many other such factors, it confounds many as to why Pakistan can't build a vibrant democracy.

The military-bureaucratic dominance has been made a menacing reality in Pakistan by delaying the drafting of the constitution for a long time and postponing general elections since the bloody birth of the nation in 1947. This was done to marginalise the majority who were Bengalis (above 50%) against the dominant minority comprising Punjabis.

The system of representative democracy would have given a far greater share of power to the Bengalis in the eastern wing of Pakistan. The Punjabi minority, which dominated the bureaucracy and the army, therefore, was never serious about the democratic process.

This non-accommodative and authoritarian spirit resulted in the fragmentation of the Pakistani nation in two parts. The eastern wing, which had a bloody birth in 1971, was called Bangladesh.

While the geographical distance between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan was definitely an important reason for this disintegration, the above-mentioned factors played a role as well. There was no effort made to build a party-based political system capable of reflecting Pakistan's linguistic and cultural diversities. Contrast it with India, which accommodated linguistic aspirations; provinces began to be carved out along linguistic lines as early as the early 1950s. The process continues till date.

The Congress-led, mass-based anti-colonial struggle had envisaged this goal as early as 1920 at its annual session in Nagpur. But the Muslim League, in its attempts to create Pakistan by dividing India, did not have any such socially accommodative ideological programmes. Small wonder then that the political parties functioning in Pakistan don't have effective bases of popular support. Military dictators marginalised the industrial labour and intelligentsia.

The famous Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi narrated a clearly revealing tale about this in his autobiography, Yaadon Ki Baraat. Mahilabadi migrated to the Khuda Ki Basti (God's Own Land), despite being persuaded otherwise by Jawaharlal Nehru, only to repent it pathetically.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (prime minister, Pakistan, 1971 to 1977), while claiming to have a Left-progressive leaning ideology of reforms for the underprivileged, packed his Pakistan Peoples Party with landed notables and had scant respect for civil liberties. He vigorously pursued the politics of taking revenge against political rivals and gave a serious blow to the provisions of provincial autonomy in 1973, thereby subverting democracy.

General Zia-ul Haq (1977 to 1988), a military authoritarian, enlisted the support of the Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Pakistan and the Jamiatul Ulema-e-Pakistan. He also had a base among the neo-rich trading classes in the urban centres. Having got support from ostensibly Islamic groups, he could unleash repressive legislation against women in 1979, and remain ruthless towards his political opponents. He attempted to contain his rising social unpopularity by showing exaggerated external threats and enhancing the budgetary outlay for defence and armaments, which resulted in extreme economic crisis and military control over the State apparatus.

His regime also witnessed a fierce Punjabi-Sindhi divide. While social transformation in rural Sind became a volcanic issue, urban Sind gave birth to the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, MQM. Important towns like Karachi and Hyderabad turned into linguistic (Urdu versus Sindhi) battle zones.

The beneficiaries of political patronage during the Zia era gave birth to Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, PML; Sharif ruled Pakistan from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999. During this period, both the ruling PML and Opposition PPP failed miserably to come out with a concrete economic programme. How could they do it? Even the political formation (the Muslim League) that created the nation called Pakistan could never come out with a defined economic programme.

Let this be contrasted with the Karachi Resolution (1931) of the Congress-led anti-colonial struggle, where a concrete programme of fundamental rights and an economic programme aimed at bringing socio-economic justice was put forward as a blueprint for independent India. Moving ahead, in 1936 at Faizpur, it also promised an agrarian programme to fight feudal domination through land proprietorship. It clearly talked of land reforms, redistribution of all kinds of wealth and nationalisation of industries. In 1938, it formed the National Planning Committee.

It kept displaying its sincere commitment to civil liberties, minority rights, social justice, secularism and socialism. It believed extraordinarily in politicising people through mass movements. In order to actualise this objective, it maintained a relationship with the socialist and communist parties and the workers and peasants' parties.

On the other hand, the Jinnah-led Muslim League always entered into backdoor negotiations with the imperial power and, when under pressure from the Congress, led mass assertions. In short, the strength and aspiration of the masses were always insignificant for the creators of Pakistan. During 1937 to 1947, they did enlist mass support, but the mobilising issues were divisive and hate mongering, based on religious exclusivism.

This is not to say that all was/is well with the Congress and other political formations. But the way Pakistan's politics has been moving since its birth is definitely an outcome of the way they defined and practised their nationalism. This is the reason why its military dictators get the advantage of not encountering fierce mass assertion even in this age, where the media has an all-pervasive, unrestrained reach. Even a backward, feudalised, fiercely caste-segregated Indian province like Bihar can bring the state to its knees when an ordinary mediaman is beaten by a warlord politician and the latter can be subjected to punishment, but the nation called Pakistan can black out the media so easily.

One may counter this line of argument by citing certain examples:

a. The imposition of the Emergency in 1975 by the Indira Gandhi-led government. Yet, even though it was outrageously anti-democratic, it was not a military dictatorship.

b. Massacres like anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, where the rule of law has just vanished. But one redeeming aspect of Indian democracy still exists -- the judiciary and human rights activists are able to extract at least some space for justice. Institutions are still expected to deliver the goods.

Limitations and criticisms apart, the resilience and endurance of Indian democracy is precisely because of the fact that the programmes of socio-economic justice are constantly moving ahead. Maoism, Naxalism, secessionist insurgencies and other such organised and unorganised violence are raising their heads mostly in those pockets where they are being denied disproportionately.

Unsurprisingly, the existing political formations of Pakistan are just not able to define and practise enduring programmes of social justice, balanced regional development, federalism/ provincial 'autonomy' and, above all, a political economy oriented towards the emergence of a civil society where democratic institutions don't get discredited or de-legitimised. Regardless of when the elections are held and who comes to power, a substantive democracy will keep eluding Pakistan for some more time to come. This is a great worry for her neighbour, India, and for rest of the world.

Dr Mohammad Sajjad is a lecturer, department of history, Centre of Advanced Study, Aligarh Muslim University.


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