Civil Society

Tammy Haq, raised a question, the other day, in her programme on TV that why civil society is not coming out against the government? Lawyer Faisal Siddiqui felt that the NGOs liberal elite have been depoliticized. The ambivalent liberals, he said, feel that that Musharraf is promoting liberal values against the fundamentalists.


Is it that simple? Perhaps not. I think the role of civil society and political parties in the ongoing judicial crisis should be examined dispassionately.


So first let’s look at what is the definition of Civil Society. According to the Centre for Civil Society (CCS) a leading, international organisation for research, analysis, debate and learning about civil society based at the London School of Economics: “Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women’s organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.”


While it is true that the emergence of NGOs in the 90s has attracted many left-of-the-center political workers and intellectuals into their fold, it is also true that NGOs offer pushy and comfortable jobs. But this does not mean we should indulge in NGO bashing like some government ministers and fundamentalists. They are making significant contribution to the society by providing relief to the people and raising their specific issues. There is no doubt that some NGOs are being misused by their promoters. But then every basket has some bad eggs. (We shall visit the topic, NGOs role in Pakistan, some other day).


These NGOs are made for specific purposes and are funded accordingly by their local and international donors. They cannot be expected to come out on the streets on judicial crisis. Argument against this is that the issue of justice is connected to all the issues on which the NGOs have been campaigning. Yes, for that the people working in NGOs do come out in their individual capacity and not as representatives of their respective organisations.  


The directly affected segment of the civil society, the lawyers, is out in full force.  They have always been in the forefront of all democratic, constitutional and independence of judiciary struggles. Other professional bodies like that of doctors, engineers, accountants, businessmen, etc. have seldom come out on the streets on such issues in their organizational capacity. They have participated but more in an individual capacity. The lawyers feel strongly on these issues because by training they learn to accept dissenting views and pay respect to judiciary. It is also their vested interest that people’s faith in the supremacy of judiciary is not shattered. Otherwise nobody will hire lawyers for seeking justice.


Most vocal and active segments of civil society which played an important role in the past are workers federations and students organisation. In Pakistan workers movement has suffered a set-back in the last two decades. More and more workers are employed on contract. Only 6% workers are members of the organised trade unions. The left which use to link them with political movements has lost that position. Student organisations are attached with the political parties and can be mobilised by them. Another unfortunate development is that now workers and students are divided on ethnic lines rather than ideological lines, with the exception of those who support religious parties.


This brings us to another question that while political parties are providing support to the lawyers’ movement against the judicial reference, why they are not willing to heat it up to the extent of over-throwing the present government. It seems that the major reason of this restrained movement is that the political parties have matured and they know that the elections are around the corner. If there is any major movement as in 1977, elections can be postponed. So the best bet for them is to use this opportunity to push the government for concessions like appointment of a neutral interim government, independent Election Commissioner and may be the VCOAS of their liking. The latter is very important because whenever President would decide to doff his uniform, the next General would be the most powerful man of Pakistan.


It is also difficult for the political parties to take out the people for a decisive movement on judicial and constitutional issues. You talk to the common man he is found too involved in the mundane problems like: rising prices, unemployment, lack of public transport, electricity breakdowns, lawlessness, highhandedness of landed elite, overflowing gutters and garbage heaps. The local government system has also provided them a valve to take out the steam on local and provincial level.


If given a chance People will manifest their resentment against the government in the upcoming elections. It is this fear that the establishment is now looking for new partners. They know ‘shinning Pakistan’ rhetoric’s does not promise election victory to the incumbent governments, at least in this part of the world. Mismanagement of judicial reference is just one more blemish the government will carry into the election campaign. And for the opposition it’s big scoring point. Nothing more should be expected from this tangle. (

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