Mob politics: the kiss of death

February 17,2019

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The Supreme Court’s Faizabad judgment talks about mob politics. In 2014, the PTI-PAT’s prolonged dharnas in the federal capital’s high security zone stampeded the government into setting up a judicial commission to probe alleged rigging in the 2013 elections.

The commission didn’t find evidence of systematic rigging. Four years later, the TLP staged a similar show of strength on the blasphemy issue, which threw life in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad into a tailspin, and got the government to concede to its demands.

The PTI went on to win the 2018 elections. The TLP, which until a few months back appeared capable of taking the political scene by the storm, has largely been subdued – at least for now. But its taming has little to do with its questionable political tactics, which presumably remain popular and are regarded as a passport to success. What accounts for the rise of mob politics in Pakistan?

Mob politics is democratic politics gone haywire. Democracy may or may not be the best form of government. But, by all accounts, it is the most difficult system to sustain. The reason for this, as pointed out by Plato in antiquity, is that freedom which undergirds democracy is potentially constructive as well as destructive. Freedom of expression and assembly can be used to keep the government on the right track. Alternatively, it can be abused to incite violence or upset the applecart of democracy. Herein lies democracy’s most glaring contradiction, which it must overcome if it is to take root.

The relationship between freedom and authority is a perennial political question. Members of a political society must have some freedom and the government must have some authority. Without the former, a polity will become totalitarian; in the absence of the latter it will be reduced to the proverbial state of nature, where life in the words of Thomas Hobbes is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. But where is the line to be drawn? Different forms of government answer this question in their own fashion. A despotic government concedes minimum freedom to the people, while arrogating to itself maximum authority. By contrast, a democratic dispensation gives maximum freedom to the citizens while itself exercising minimum authority consistent with an orderly government. Therefore, freedom, with all its constructive and destructive potential, assumes paramount importance in a democracy.

If the government relies on strong-arm tactics to sort out political problems, it ceases to be democratic. But if the governed turn their freedom into a licence to do anything they like, such as taking the law into their own hands and inciting violence, the polity passes into chaos and anarchy and democracy is degraded into mobocracy. In the end, the difference between democracy and mobocracy is that the former is subject to rule of law and constitutionalism, whereas the latter sets aside such ‘constraints.’ This distinction has been well articulated by the apex court in the judgment on the Faizabad dharna: “The right of assembly”, the judgment reads, “the freedom of association and the freedom of speech cannot be exercised by infringing upon the fundamental rights of others.’

The provisions regarding fundamental rights are contained in Chapter 1 (Articles 8-28) of the constitution. The kernel of these provisions is that fundamental rights are inviolable, yet they are not absolute. Article 8 states in express terms that the state shall make no law which “takes away or abridges” the fundamental rights, which include the right to life and liberty, safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to a fair trial and due process, inviolability of the dignity of a person, freedom of assembly, movement, association and expression, and the right to profess, practice and propagate the faith of one’s choice (the list is illustrative rather than exhaustive).

At the same time, these fundamental rights can’t be exercised in an untrammelled fashion and the state may impose ‘reasonable’ restrictions on them by law. While the word ‘reasonable’ is vague and it is for the courts to interpret whether in a given case any curbs imposed on the manner in which a fundamental right is to be exercised pass the test of reasonableness, any act which restricts the equal rights of other citizens is ipso facto beyond the scope of fundamental rights and the state needs to step in. The 2014 and 2017 dharnas staged by the PTI and the TLP respectively denied freedom of movement to a large number of citizens. The TLP leadership also resorted to incitement to violence, which can’t be allowed in the name of the right to speech and of assembly.

American social psychologist Smelser has identified six conditions for the development of collective, including mob, behaviour. Of these, the first is the presence of a peculiarly conducive social structure. Therefore, the answer to the question why mobocracy is taking root in Pakistan consists in analysing the social structure.

Mob behaviour is an expression of both cultural conflict and failure of formal and informal methods of social control. It lays bare the cleavages and schisms present in a society. That is why the action earns both approval and disapproval, admiration and condemnation. One side regards the perpetrators as heroes serving a ‘noble’ cause; for the other they are despicable villains.

Pakistani society is characterised by a sharp split on such key questions as the place of religion in society, the relationship between the state and religion, the relative usefulness of parliamentary democracy and other forms of government, and the desirable direction of political change. It’s not only these questions that divide the people but the methods of addressing them are divisive as well.

A society may rely on dialogue, debate, logic and argumentation or on sanctions, force and coercion in dealing with disagreement and dissent. The first method draws sustenance from rule of law and respect for civil liberties; the second thrives on show of strength and a culture of repression. Every society makes use of both methods. But societies vary in the degree to which each method is used. A society putting its overwhelming trust in coercion and largely discounting the role of dialogue and logic in addressing social issues is a fertile ground for the rise of mob behaviour – of which mobocracy is the prime political expression.

Thus, religious extremists believe that the only way to address religious dissent is to kill the dissenter. Self-styled moral crusaders would justify any attempt to topple a ‘corrupt’ government through a mob, thus reducing to nullity democratic institutions.

Political and cultural factors have combined to bring society to this state. In the past, on quite a few occasions, a lawfully elected government was unlawfully dismissed. When the claim to political power rests on the ability to coerce, the faith of the rest of society in peaceful conflict resolution is shaken. Exploitation of the moral and religious sentiments of the population has also aided mob politics. Over the years, the PTI has tried to inject strong doses of morality into politics. The TLP went one step ahead and injected even more potent doses into politics. While some parties may relish playing this power game, it’s for sure the kiss of death for society.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: hussainhzaidigmail.com

Twitter: hussainhzaidi


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