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Mr Abdullah J. Memon (Pakistan)

1 The present state of civil society
in Pakistan & India

Dr S V Raju | Dr. Manzoor Ahmad | Dr. Sri Ram Khanna | Mr. Abdullah J. Memon | Dr. Hamza Alvi | DISCUSSION | SESSION CONTENTS | HOME


Why this resistance to the growth of pluralism?

Even after independence, the state remained all-pervading and overshadowed the civil society in a variety of ways.

Today in Pakistan also pressures are building up from left as well as from right to limit the role of state and to assign greater responsibility to civil society.

Abdullah J. Memon presented a brief overview of the state of civil society in Pakistan. Like the rest of the world, Pakistan also has witnessed a revigoration of the civil society since the late 70’s. "Two factors, one local and one global, have contributed to the process."

The local factor was the replacement of certain sections of the Pakistan Penal Code by the blatantly unjust Zina and Hudood Ordinance of Gen. Zia-ul-Haque. This law required a rape victim to bring four witnesses to the actual act of molestation, failing which consent was presumed on the part of the raped woman and she was liable to be prosecuted for adultery or fornication. Women form all over Pakistan came together to protest against this new law under the umbrella organisation of Women’s Action Forum (WAF). Subsequently another citizen body called War Against Rape (WAR) also came into being to provide legal and moral support to victims of raped.

The global factor was the awareness of such issues as (a) the damage done to the environment, (b) dissatisfaction with quality and content of development, and (c) inadequate attention to human rights generally and interests and rights of the marginalised sections of the society particularly. This led to the emergence of many NGOs working to prevent the damage done to the environment, encouraging grassroot participation in the planning and execution of development projects and safeguarding and protecting the human rights. "In this connection the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) deserves special mention for the pioneering work they have done to safeguard the interests and rights of the poor, the minorities, the women, as well as the rights of the ordinary citizens.

Mr. Memon pointed out that while the last two decades have witnessed an increase in the volume of the civil society, "the civil society in Pakistan was not absent or idle in the Colonial Period either." However, the thrust of the activities of the NGOs was altogether different in those times as well as in the years following the independence. During the Raj days, social activism tended to focus on collective services "rooted in bonds of kinship or neighbourhood and on welfare activities." There were funeral and welfare organisations generally called jamaats, organised by kinsmen or neighbours for their mutual benefits. There were also many welfare organisations, which established and managed schools, dispensaries, orphanages and hostels, etc.

There were certain areas of social activity in which the colonial government discouraged the civil society to assume a major role. One example was trade union activities. Unfortunately for Pakistan, even the native governments that came after the independence continued to look at such activities as a threat to their own authority and power. The climate therefore "proved hostile for the growth of pluralism in Pakistan," so much so that the peasantry, which was the principle interest group in the society, could never get itself organised despite dedicated and persistent efforts of some truly committed social activists.

Mr. Memon then probed into the question "Why should not the Pakistani state welcome various voluntary institutions and organisations in civil society to assume more and more such social responsibilities and functions which can be shouldered by such societies?" He mentioned two possible answers. Firstly, that this could "alter the power relation I the Pakistani society against the vested interests and in favour of the deprived sections." But a deeper analysis of this issue leads to "that perennial issue of the relationship between the state and the civil society." Mr. Memon then dealt with the historical background of this issue in some detail.

Mr. Memon proposed that the civil society was more dominant in the beginning. Various issues were "handled by autonomous institutions comprising of individuals who had fair interest in certain specific matters." As the sphere of social activity expanded with the advancement of civilisation, the interests of these various groups in the civil society began to clash with each other and led to the necessity of an intermediary power. This power was assumed by the institution of the state. Hence the state came into being for the basic purpose of conflict resolution in the civil society.

Among the various theories of state, the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) presented the theory of a security state, involving almost complete subjection of the individual by a state who should enjoy unlimited power. As opposed to this, his country-fellow John Locke (1632 – 1704) came up with the theory of a constitutional state in which the political power would always be held on trust: those who govern civil society are trustees of the governed and, therefore, cannot exercise unlimited power.

The ever-expanding role of the state gave rise, in the late eighteenth century, to the need of putting limitations on the powers of the state – no matter whether those powers are seen as a trust or a privilege. Thomas Paine (1737-1839), another British philosopher, advocated the model of a minimum state, where the state is deemed a necessary evil and the civil and natural society an unqualified good. The legitimate state is nothing more than a delegatee of limited power brought into being for the common benefit of society: the more perfect a civil society is the more it regulates its own affairs.

Contrasting this concept of the minimum state is the Hegelian theory of the universal state. The German Philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) perceived the modern civil society as a restless battlefield where one private interest meets another private interest in a manner that tends to paralyse the societies pluralism, thus undermining the very interests of the civil society itself. Hence he professed the necessity of a supreme public authority which could check the self-crippling nature of the civil society and synthesise its particular interests into a universal political community. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), the French historian and moderate liberal politician became a vigorous opponent of this universalist concept, which, according to him, ends up in the growth of a new kind of elected state despotism, or the "tyranny of the majority." The social life is overpowered by the political institutions – the state becomes the regulator, the inspector, the advisor, educator, the punisher, all combined in one body. Tocqueville is appalled by this development, which can sabotage the decisive victories of democratic revolution. He agrees that minimising the state powers alone cannot guarantee democratic freedom. What needs to be done in order to resist the yoke of state despotism is to distribute the power into the hands of various institutions and, at the same time, to encourage the development of civil associations.

However, from the second half of the 19th century the social systems became so complex that the dividing line between the state and the civil society became increasingly blurred. The historical factors that facilitated the domination of the state over the civil society included the ever-increasing influence of the labour movements and parties in Europe, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the two world wars and the concept of the modern welfare state.

The trend continued till the late 1970’s when the institution of the state came under attack both from the neo-conservatives as well as the progressives – though for different reasons.

Mr. Memon concluded with a pointer to the fact that similar pressures can be witnessed as growing up in Pakistan from extremely opposite sides. While the right-wing favours privatisation and liberalisation so that the state is largely confined to the affairs of internal and external security, the left wing wants to see the weakening of the centralised and bureaucratised state so that power could be devolved to grassroot levels. This is expected to "put new life into the civil society and encourage self-reliance and client participation at the local levels."


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