The other Pakistan: a powerful civil society asserts itself

March 14, 2009

Lawyers dressed in black suits scuffling with police, several dragged into police vans. Other marching, their arms linked, shouting slogans and holding placards in a peaceful campaign for justice. If you looked at the TV and still pictures of the “long march” launched by the lawyers in a two-year campaign to uphold the freedom and integrity of the judiciary, they seemed to show a vibrant democracy rather than a country teetering on the brink of failure. It’s a face of Pakistan that has all but got buried in recent months, M Reza Pirbhai, a professor of South Asian history at Louisiana University, wrote in Counterpunch.

“Turban-topped, gun-totting mountain men, stern military dictators and corrupt civilian politicians dominate the global media’s representations of Pakistan, from Washington to New Delhi best fitting the preferred image of the ‘most dangerous place on earth,” he said.

“The Pakistani press, however, provides equal coverage to a movement born in the populous, lowland cities, one that showcases this country of 160 million’s more representative, non-violent face. For the past two years, national commentators have been following ‘Men in Black’ – a reference to their black suits and ties – around the streets of Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and every other major population centre.”

For two years the men, and indeed the women, have openly challenged the might of the state with rallies, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts of government institutions and sit-ins in public spaces. They want the supreme court judges dismissed by then President Pervez Musharraf reinstated and a crackdown on them has again begun as they march towards Islamabad.

Is such a protest possible in Afghanistan, the state that Pakistan increasingly finds itself compared to? Or even more tellingly, in any of the countries in the Middle East? Or even countries in southeast Asia such as Malaysia?

The Asian Human Rights Commission says throughout Asia there is no parallel to the Pakistani lawyers movement. It was largely because of this that an election took place last February after nine years of military rule.

The protests, for all the risks they hold for Pakistan’s fragile democracy, represent the power of a civil society, says Ijaz Shafi Gilani, a specialist in public opinion research, in an article in The News.

“An increasingly empowered and more cohesive society finds itself at odds with the authority of the state. Trust in state institutions has declined while trust in civil society institutions including independent media has risen,” he says.

Pakistan’s problem is not that it is a failing nation, he argues. The problem is the distrust between an increasing vibrant society and the state. “The year under the stewardship of  (President Asif Ali) Zardari can perhaps best be described as the one that produced a weaker state, stronger nation.”

Something to retrieve then from these protests?

[Photos of protests in Rawalpindi and Karachi]

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