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April 20, 2021

Change and revolutions

Opinion

April 20, 2021

Part - IV

Perhaps the best method of introducing change in society is through legal means: by introducing new progressive legislations and enforcing them in letter and spirit. Sometimes legislation can be regressive also but there has to be a mechanism to make revisions in laws that affect people’s lives.

In societies where conservatism prevails – or has been imposed on society by decision-makers – it may take generations before regressive laws are amended. If the reins of government and state are in the hands of those who benefit from regressive laws, they make it a point to use culture and religion as excuses for conservative law-making. The Objectives Resolution in Pakistan is a case in point. The same applies to some constitutional amendments that are well-nigh impossible to revert.

In Western societies we have seen a gradual march towards more constitutional forms of governments from the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. The English Revolution of the 1640s and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 imposed constitutional constraints and English society became a constitutional monarchy. The Tsarist regime in Russia was the architect of its own downfall because of its blinkered refusal to make concessions to the growing movements for political and social reforms. Whenever powerful segments of society use nationalism or religion for political benefits, they place their own interests above the interests of society.

The desire to reform rather than going for an all-out revolution is in itself conservative; in the words of Burke, it is a ‘philosophy of change in order to conserve’. Revolutionaries dub reformists as conservatives, but this type of ‘conservativism of reform’ is better than the ‘conservatism of the status quo’. It means there are degrees of change – from regression to reformation to revolution. The path to constitutionalism, cultural development, democracy, and to an enlightened society goes through reforms. A resistance to reform invariably leads to revolution which trounces the basic structure of society to a great extent.

Reforms are essentially enlightened reactions based upon a view of history which differs from backward-looking reaction or traditionalism. In Pakistan we are witnessing precisely this backward-looking reaction which is promoting traditionalism by using regressive narratives of unchanging nature of human history. The view of history that advocates of backwardness communicate to our children and youth is fairly pessimistic. It tells us that if you advance culturally, you will be losing your dominance – and especially boys or men will lose their dominance over their families, most of all over girls and women.

For them, any cultural and democratic advancement is underpinned by the belief that things will get worse if cultural changes take place; or if democracy takes roots based on freedom of expression in families, communities, and in the country at large. Instead of an enlightened reaction leading to institutional and structural reforms, they resist the inevitable change and by doing so they pave the way to a bloody revolution. The youth of this country is frustrated, with no opportunities to educate or entertain themselves other than chanting slogans and wielding weapons. They need to advance but don’t know how.

For the decision-makers and the most powerful institutions in this country, the choice is clear if they manage to notice: accept and applaud reforms culturally and democratically; with no reforms, there will only be regrets. We need to teach our children and youth – and tell our adults – -that human will to reform is supreme and they can shape their own affairs if they look forward to more civilized and culturally advanced societies. They should be able to see and understand that advanced, civilized and cultured societies today are mostly democratic societies not based on authoritarian, despotic, feudal and tribal ethos.

Our defence experts, educators, and finance managers should understand that the tide of history flows to human development and empowerment. If our policies – be it in defence, education or finance – do not change for the better, we will continue our slide down the road to an abyss. Wisdom dictates that human beings sink or swim with the policies their states make. As states become more tolerant of change – progressive, not regressive change – they become less suspicious of reform. But in Pakistan exactly the opposite has been happening. We have become more tolerant of regressive change; as we crack down on liberal and progressive thought, we become more suspicious of reform.

The more suspicious of reform you become, the more you throw your society to bloody upheavals of a revolution. For a modern society to prosper and thrive, there has to be a commitment – not superficial but deep commitment – to progress in all spheres of life: culturally, economically, politically, and socially. If you just focus on economic growth while trying to retain your society regressive or stagnant, isolation is the future on the world stage. To avoid the status of a pariah in the world, we need to demonstrate our reforming credentials, and distance ourselves from the image of unthinking reactionaries.

With the advantage of hindsight, we can say that a failure to introduce prudent cultural and democratic reforms leads to violent revolutions. It is true that, far from promoting stability and contentment, reform may pave the way for more radical change; but that should be accepted and the state should prepare its society to welcome rather than resist such change. That’s where we can judge if a particular state is progressive or regressive. If a state shows apathy to abject poverty, is it progressive or regressive? You tell me.

If a state keeps improving the cultural, political, and social conditions of its citizens, it is for sure a progressive state. If it fails in any one of these, it remains regressive, no matter how much it promotes nationalism, patriotism, or religion in society through controlled education, indoctrination, or media. Ideally, we should associate reform with innovation which implies betterment rather than restoration, which does not entail improvement. When our beliefs, institutions and practices remove their undesirable qualities, we become more acceptable and respectable in the world community. To demand the reform of an institution – or of many dominant institutions, for that matter – is to call for a reorganization of their structures and alteration of their authority and powers.

It may also call for a change in the functions of various centres of power in society – irrespective of whether they derive their authority from legal systems, people’s will, power of weapons, religious or sectarian outfits, or any other. That does not mean that beliefs, institutions or practices should entirely be abolished, which some revolutions have tried to do with varying degrees of success. There has to be some capacity in society to reform, which is increasingly diminishing in Pakistan. If the institutions and systems in question keep focusing on strengthening their own power, the capacity of society to change or reform keeps depleting, as we have been witnessing.

To conclude, I daresay that Pakistan is in dire need of cultural, political and social reforms. People need an extension of their franchise in various spheres of life so that they can keep pace with advancements in the world. Pakistan needs institutional adjustments which can take place within the existing constitutional structure, if only we learn to accept and respect the constitution. Social reforms must result in improvements in living conditions and public health and education for a vast majority of people. An advance movement forward, and no regression please.

Concluded

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]