Will civil society please relax?

The lawyers’ movement fostered many illusions, none more powerful than the myth that there was something called civil society in Pakistan, good people out to do good and inspired by the best of intentions.

By Ayaz Amir (Pakistan)

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Published: Sat 23 Oct 2010, 10:10 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:30 AM

Retired bureaucrats, professors of academia in search of a cause, society girls and begums, and frustrated politicians—a politician who fails to get elected or who has nowhere to get elected from is a study in frustration—became the standard-bearers of civil society.

The media which had also come into its own thanks to Musharraf’s TV-proliferation policies—TV anchors, otherwise champions of revisionist history, must never forget their debt to Musharraf—skated over the miniscule numbers of civil society and glorified its image. Civil society became a catchphrase. Everyone was using it. If you were stumped for an answer you mumbled the words civil society and tried to look profound. It was surprising how often the trick worked.

NGOs once upon a time had started saying that they could manage things better than the government. The leading knights and ladies of civil society started suggesting that whereas the political class had failed the nation, they along with lawyers, the media and a rejuvenated judiciary would help fix the nation’s problems.

All these four classes—media, lawyers, judges and civil society—made common cause with each other, feeding upon each other’s prejudices, reinforcing each other’s arrogance. They lived in a world of make-believe. The world of reality was kept firmly at a distance.

Three years down the line we are in a position to judge the consequences of that strange and heady mood. The media is on a perpetual warpath, working itself up into a lather of excitement and anger even when it is pretty obvious that the performance is rather forced and contrived. What Oscar Wilde said of fox-hunting comes close to describing the media frenzy which is now part of everyday Pakistani existence. This is Musharraf’s revenge from beyond the seas, not diversity of news and opinion but the sameness of news and opinion delivered in a babble of 64 different voices.

We flatter ourselves by thinking that as a result of media plurality we are a more aware nation. The truth is more mortifying. We are becoming a dumber nation, feeding on trivia and endlessly dissecting it. This is a new kind of addiction which keeps us safely distracted from the consideration of issues which should be more rigorously looked into and more vigorously debated. On display in the media generally—and this has to be a loose generalisation—is the poverty of imagination and smugness of Pakistan’s lettered classes. In short, the media is running out of causes or is failing to see what the causes should be. To nourish its frenzy it has to sensationalise things and dig up meaning where none exists. The lawyers’ movement has successfully transmuted itself into a near-perfect expression of legal hooliganism, leaving other forms of public hooliganism far behind. It has even managed to take on senior members of the higher judiciary and there is little that the concerned judges have been able to do about it. Their lordships having ridden the tiger of lawyerly opinion now find that they cannot get off its back. Such is the way of most movements. And to think that the more starry-eyed amongst us thought that the rampaging black-coats would be the heralds of a new dawn.

If the firebrand of the lawyers’ movement, Ali Ahmed Kurd, of all people can be abused by a section of lawyers then it only goes to show that the Pakistani malaise, born of many things but born primarily of a lack of culture, is more about a poverty of the intellect and the imagination than anything else. Culture is not just song and dance but one’s attitude to life, one’s innate understanding of what the good life should be. Balance and a sense of proportion, the ability to engage in calm and reasoned discourse, the inculcation of tolerance, the ability to respect differences of opinion, a natural distaste for verbosity, an avoidance of mass hysteria, the shunning of slogans—these are mental attitudes grounded in the right kind of culture.

Their lordships too were affected by the times, their proclivity to indulge in a never-ending bout of judicial super-activism rooted in the belief nurtured by the lawyers’ movement that they had a near-divine duty to lead the process of cleansing the national stables. As a consequence they spread their wings far and wide touching a never-ending range of subjects, throwing things into turmoil but lacking the power to bring matters to a head or a conclusion.

To the paralysis of government many factors have contributed but this hyper-activism has also played its part. At its restoration the superior judiciary stood on the topmost peaks. Now it is inviting more than its share of cynicism.

The latest imbroglio it has found itself in is a case in point. Where in the world do judges concern themselves with rumours? Where do they go into a huddle, resembling an extended war council, on the basis of an unsubstantiated news report? This should be a sobering moment for the higher judiciary, an occasion to realise that judges allow themselves to be driven by the media only at their peril.

Agitation has its own norms but stability has its own requirements. Most of the expectations raised by the lawyers’ movement lie in ruins by the wayside. But if something is to be retrieved from the mess there has to be a soberer understanding of what the rule of law means.

Behind this mess lies the constant trumpeting and bellowing of civil society: retired grandees, assorted begums and a range of armchair warriors thundering for change even as, most of the time, they remain unclear what the elements of change should be, or how it should be brought about.

It hasn’t helped matters that the symbol of the Republic is a walking disaster, a man of few ideas and little understanding of how government works. But the answer to that is the spelling out of clear alternatives, not the constant fanning of the winds of instability.

The symbol of the Republic as much as the government he symbolises should have been weakened mortally by the burden of incompetence they carry. Ironically, however, through its ill-considered intervention into the media-generated rumour about the removal of judges, the Supreme Court, unwittingly no doubt, has extended a helping hand to a beleaguered president. The Supreme Court wanted a written assurance that nothing was on the cards but the weakness of its position was underlined when Prime Minister Gilani refused to oblige it and it found there was nothing it could do about it. Who looks discomfited and who looks comfortable?

This should be a time for everyone concerned to sit back and take stock of things. We have wasted too much time. Perhaps this was only to be expected but now is the time to leave the past behind and move forward, leaving it to historians to fight over the battles of yesterday.

Ayaz Amir is a distinguished Pakistani commentator and Member of National Assembly (parliament)

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