Democratic System at Risk | I.A. Rehman

ELECTED civilian governments in Pakistan have mostly owed their fall less to the opposition parties’ doings and more to their own death wish. Hopes that our politicians had learnt enough to avoid history being repeated have unfortunately begun to fade.

The public complaint that the state’s writ in regard to its benevolent functions, such as guaranteeing its citizens security of life, liberty and a means of a decent living, is shrinking is now old hat. A new cause of their anxiety is that the state’s growing reliance on its coercive powers is undermining its credibility as a responsible entity and is putting the democratic system at risk.

Last Tuesday’s incident in which force was used to suppress the PIA employees’ protest was the result of a long history of the government’s refusal to listen to labour’s point of view on the controversial policy of selling off public-sector enterprises.

In a similar fashion, Wapda workers are being provoked into resorting to extreme action to defend their rights. These issues will not be resolved until the government agrees to discuss its misguided enthusiasm for privatisation with workers, economists and the concerned citizens. Strangely enough labour is being denied a fair deal at a time when Pakistan is required to respect its rights in order to enjoy the GSP-Plus benefits.

Civil society’s ties with the state cannot be modelled on the master-servant relationship.

However, labour is not the only victim of the government’s inability to address matters of grave concern to the people in a fair manner. Due notice has yet to be taken of the plight of farmers caused by an unprecedented failure of the cotton crop.

Women, the largest vulnerable group in the country, cannot understand the state’s failure to manage the conservative clerics who wish to preserve the evil practice of child marriage and would not allow abolition of corporal punishment. Did the government listen to the wail of the mothers of the Bacha Khan University victims, who offered a significant variant on the official narrative on the campaign against terrorism?

Likewise, little is being done to address the concerns of the minority communities. Many months have passed since the Hindu marriage bill was okayed by the federal cabinet but the delay in enacting the measure has deprived the government of the goodwill it could have earned. If some flaws in the text of the bill have been discovered at this late stage the government alone is responsible. The government has also missed the opportunity to mitigate the hardships faced by the minorities that was offered by the Supreme Court verdict of June 2014.

Not only is the government inviting criticism for its failure to respect the Supreme Court’s advice, it does not seem keen to benefit from the institutions it has created. For instance, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) is yet to be allowed to fulfil its mandate and help the authorities improve their human rights record. Nobody believes that some petty bureaucrats alone are responsible for preventing the NCHR from taking off.

Besides, the government does not seem to realise the dangers it is courting by opening a front against civil society organisations that do it and the country good service when they point out its shortcomings and errors. The process of registration and re-registration has not only been made unnecessarily cumbersome, it also smacks of vindictiveness.

Ever since junior intelligence and police functionaries were let loose to hound civil society activists they have been inventing ever new methods of obstructing and disrupting activities aimed at articulating the grievances of the underprivileged. A particularly vicious form of harassment is subjecting the office bearers and activists of civil society organisations to questions that encroach upon their rights to freedom of association and privacy.

It should not be difficult for the exalted figures in authority to realise that by decimating civil society they will lose a cushion against militants and extremists who can promise nothing other than anarchy and death.

The democrats in civil society are perhaps still prepared to give the political parties, those in government as well as those outside, a chance in the hope that they will not fail to complete the state’s transition to a functional democracy. But civil society’s ties with the state cannot be modelled on the master-servant relationship. The state has to conduct its affairs in a manner that civil society can defend it without losing the people’s trust and respect.

The government seems to have convinced itself that since it is engaged in a mortal combat with terrorists it can afford to ignore the abuse of law, which is evident in the curtailment of the right of the accused to due process, the extension of pre-trial detention to unreasonable limits and publication of statements of the accused before they are made in any court. The dictum that extra-legal measures can ruin the noblest of endeavours can hardly be ignored.

The government also needs to realise that the Rangers’ success in reducing lawlessness in Karachi does not mean that Balochistan’s sores may be allowed to fester, and that the completion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will not eradicate the causes of poverty rooted in the archaic landownership pattern.

The tales of increased prosperity in Punjab should not blind the government to the threats to the foundations of the federation posed by the growing disparity between the privileged province and the other regions, something the students of political economy have already begun to notice.

The citizens’ most fundamental grievance is that the system of governance is losing the quality of impersonal rule and the practice of taking decisions after due deliberation at the prescribed, democratic forums. It is time to rediscover the key role of the cabinet in the parliamentary system and realise that a genuine democracy demands not only rule by parliamentary consensus, but that it is also contingent on respect for the will of the people.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2016


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