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From empires to democracies


July 25, 2018

There are multiple reasons for the gradual failure of almost all state institutions in Pakistan. But the more alarming thing is the attitude of our society.

One argument that is given is that corruption and lying are two social evils that have pervaded in this part of the world since times immemorial. Writings of English and other European travellers are cited in support of this argument. The conclusion is then drawn: nothing can be done about it.

In this situation, the question of having a democratic system, which is a value, a culture, a way of life and most of all, a measure of humanity unto itself, becomes both relevant and irrelevant (since, according to the above conclusion, with those two social evils dominant, a nation will not survive for long). On the other hand, when seen from the prism of realities, again one finds a contradiction. There are people who are still incorruptible, and they hold on fast to such values.

Starting with a historical reality, continuing with the diagnosis of the maladies and setting out the graphs of democracies in two neighbouring countries whose population largely belongs to a common stock, though divided by faith, let us see whether we can answer this question: is there a way to get back lost glory?

It may be recollected that in British India, the army and the civil bureaucracy were the two permanent instruments of the empire. The East India Company and then the vice-regal authority remained heavily dependent on these two well-trained and trusted instruments of power in the empire. British India saw development, modernisation, new institutions and education, despite the excessive theft of its wealth by the British.

It may be recalled that the politicians who were part of the Indian National Congress in its pioneering years were brought up in the liberal tradition and had a relatively clean track record. The All India Muslim League since its creation in 1906 up to 1924 was only a debating club under the auspices of the empire and comprising nawabs and the landed classes which for the past many centuries were living on state resources. With the entry of Jinnah, the Muslim League became the political voice of Indian Muslims. And it was after the Pakistan Resolution was passed in 1940 that the demand for Pakistan was taken seriously both by Indian Hindus and the British.

In the post-Pakistan scenario, politics has remained a game of the few. Those who were in power in the 1940s clung on to it by using all the tricks and means at their disposal. During martial law periods, new breeds of politicians were raised in a controlled atmosphere. Ultimately, they broke previous records of corruption. State largesse was allotted, taxes were evaded and plundered money was kept in foreign accounts. They found cronies, abettors and masterminds everywhere.

The most efficient legacy of the British Empire – the civil service – was weakened in the 1970s by Z A Bhutto by being denied constitutional protection in the 1973 Constitution. It is then that those in the civil service changed in behaviour, with some becoming partners in crime and plunder.

In the 1980s, two things happened – the Afghan jihad and the Iraq-Iran long war. That is the watershed moment in our history. Corruption and crime, guns and greed, sectarian and linguistic riots completely consumed society to the extent that the only other instrument of state was constrained to act in time to thwart the existential threat by giving unprecedented sacrifices of its most decorated officers and soldiers.

After the fall of Musharraf, there was another attempt in the garb of the 18th Amendment. A careful examination of the 18th Amendment would show that, although it was passed with great pomp and show by our political elite, after over eight years since its passing, no change in the life of the common citizen has occurred. The amendment ended up weakening the federation through various means.

Our assemblies and public offices are mainly full of people of ordinary intellect – with some exceptions. The ornamental constitutional chapters of fundamental rights are meant for this class, which fully enjoys the blessings of life and liberty. There is a class conflict as well amongst these ruling classes; one feels threatened from the other. Politicians are seen as a threat to the existence of the state on the one hand, while on the other the establishment is termed as a threat to liberty. The common citizen, however, continues to struggle to make both ends meet.

In a situation like this, some socio-political engineering is required if this nation has to attain its lost glory. A strong nation’s foundation will always be built on its military might. From the Roman Empire to the American Republican Empire, this reality remains the same. In so far as the resources of the world are concerned, be it trade of bullion or barrels of oil, a nation prospers under the shadow of swords, guns and missile defence systems.

In the post-21st century, though, the fashion of military regimes is over – with a few exceptions. In the great game of great powers, systems of government hardly matter. The decision to bring stability or trouble in a region is always taken somewhere else but what our own stakeholders can do is to define clearly the rules of the game. But before that a common perception of the threat from the world has to be understood. A nation can protect its independence only if it can grind its military machine and this military machine grinds only with the blood and sweat and self-confidence of a nation.

While the nation goes to vote in new government(s), whoever matters in this country must realise that blessings of liberty this country has given to us all, if ever lost would be irretrievable. We, the people of Pakistan, are the only assurance of this liberty.


The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court and a former additional attorney general. Email: [email protected]