A fresh exploration of ideas and new activism is happening after decades of cynicism, passivity and conscious de-politicisation of society. Defenders of the old social order might have preferred to keep it that way, and they are not sparing any moment or opportunity to take the spirit and optimism out of the present social movement
It is hardly surprising that individuals and groups associated with power and privilege in Pakistan taunt activists of the ongoing social movement for their failure so far to bring about any change in the Musharraf-centred power system or reverse the disfiguration of the Constitution and other vital institutions of the state. It is not difficult to understand why they appear to be dismissive or discern where their interests lie. Be sure, they are not with the forces of change and certainly not supportive of democracy or empowerment of society.
In their defence of the old social order and the authoritarianism, they take a recognisable conservative view of social change and abhorrently reject new voices, visions and activism toward a larger objective of more just and participatory society. The established classes rooted in social hierarchies of the past are interestingly familiar with liberal ideas and institutions, and they are also aware about their transformative effects on society. Why would they question, then, the liberal, democratic and constitutionalist ideology of the new social movement or its vigour to effect change?
Obviously, it is the fear of the ruling classes about how notions of rights, justice and equality, which essentially define the modern world, would upset the traditional social and political order. Before we come to the issue of social resistance and what form it is taking or might take in future, it necessary to point to the emerging social and political divide. It is a sign of change itself that there is a serious engagement with discourses on social and political change, ideological questions, however vague they appear to be, and the necessity for Pakistan to quit its authoritarian past and join the ranks of civilised nations.
A fresh exploration of ideas and new activism is happening after decades of cynicism, passivity and conscious de-politicisation of society. Defenders of the old social order might have preferred to keep it that way, and they are not sparing any moment or opportunity to take the spirit and optimism out of the present social movement. And there is no better proof of such attempts than the actions of Pervez Musharraf on and after November 3. For long, his image and credibility as an agent of change, different from the politicians he ousted, are gone. Pakistanis have lost count of the number of times they have been cheated by their great leaders.
But one thing that seems to be emerging out of their agonising and tragic political experience is a lack of trust and respect for leaders; and if they show any deference, it is because of fear more than genuine feelings. This really marks the beginning of resistance, in many forms. Successful resistance would redefine social, political and economic relations in society, an unfavourable outcome for the ruling elites, who deny such resistance for psychological comfort.
This denial of the new social movement is apparently on two counts. First is the familiar line that has been hammered on our heads for the past six decades: Pakistan’s social structures cannot embrace universal ideas of human equality, rights and dignity. They confuse this universal impulse by referring to tradition and religion, which unfortunately they present as a defence against the ideals of modern men and women. It is important to remember that these are familiar weapons of obstruction that similar forces in the Western world used against the movement for human rights. And we must remind ourselves that resistance to social change was as fierce, and the supporters of the old order as ruthless, as in our case. Also, change did not take place in one go, but through series of invisible revolutions and protests, and through major shifts in power like the French and American revolutions.
The second argument is that the relatively poor and largely rural Pakistani society, divided in ethnicities, sects and castes and polarised among the political elites, is not ready for the big changes that the new social movement is working for. It is true to some degree, but there is another type of cohesion, solidarity and common vision that the new social movement is forging; and that is what social movements do when they grow, take off and finally succeed. This is a common feeling: ideals of constitutionalism and human rights in their expansive sense have brought peoples from different social groups, professions and geographical regions of the country together.
There is a feeling of unity among the people on reclaiming the country from the rapacious political, bureaucratic and military elite networks. What is a source of tremendous hope is a genuine sense of empowerment among the youth of Pakistan and their determination to stake a claim in the future of the country.
The style of resistance that new social movement has adopted to change the old order is remarkably different from what happened in the past. The deriding comments of apologists for the military-traditional elite consociation that the street has not risen up and protest marches have not attracted the gatherings that we saw in the 1968 and 1977 movements don’t capture the essence or method of the new protest movement.
How it is different? The movement is about a fundamental change in the way Pakistan is being governed. Therefore, the focus is on four major structural issuesindependence of the judiciary; supremacy of the Constitution; rule of law; and civil liberties. Traditional elites dominating the political parties have acted no differently on many of these issues than the military regimes, and most of them have been part of military-sponsored coalitions and political orders.
Therefore, the real hope of Pakistanis is not that the elections will improve political conditions only marginally, but that the new social movement brings about genuine structural change in Pakistan’s power relations.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.