Political Activism – or the lack of it.

Sixty years of Pakistan’s existence has established one disturbing habit in our national psyche. We, as a nation, may be very vocal politically, we may love to voice a strong opinion on every national issue but that is where we draw the line. For when it comes to taking real action and changing things, we have proved ourselves to be the most apathetic and apolitical of nations. Political activism is a term that carries little value in Pakistan’s socio-political discourse. Not only do we prefer not to participate in the mainstream political process, but more dangerously there is little that has been able to take us to the streets and made us register our voice.

And that is not for the dearth of contentious issues in our socio-political domain. In the popular political discourse of our country we constantly refer to the silent moderate majority. Let us agree that it is indeed a ‘moderate’ majority, the questions then that we need to address are: why is it a ’silent’ majority, more importantly – for how long can it afford to remain a silent majority and of course, how do we remedy the situation?

Let us address the first question in this post. The lack of political activism in mainstream Pakistani society can be attributed to a number of factors. Foremost, amongst them is the lack of social ownership that is found in our society – we, as a nation, are hesitant to acknowledge the problems of our society as our own. We don’t believe that we can make a difference and are always on the lookout for a messiah – a messiah who will come and rid us of all the ills of our society. We don’t ‘own’ our society strongly enough to stand up and take the first step towards change.

On the flip side of the argument, even if we are willing to do so, the space for political and civic participation has been drastically reduced through the years. The local government system introduced in 2000 could have been successful if had it been truly disassociated from upper tier politics. The proceedings of the two tenures of local government have clearly illustrated that the scope of political participation for the common man has only decreased by the covert inclusion of mainstream parties in the process. This has resulted in a disassociation between the immediate political/civic structures and the constituents. Local governments have ceased to be a platform for the redressal of local problems and issues, but now they are used to launch wider political campaigns.

This leads us to the next problem. We have made it a habit to turn every issue that besets our society into a political feud of sorts. This ruthlessly strips the issue of its moral or social standing and turns it into a scoreboard for the warring political factions. The prime culprit here is not the politicisation of the issue per se, but rather the crude manner in which it is done. This alone acts as a deterrent preventing articulation of pertinent issues. Moreover politics, bereft of principles and ideological stands, is considered to be dirty business that no respectable person should venture into. The general tendency therefore is to take the backseat and leave it to others to do all ‘dirty’ work. Having said that, it is true that there will be some rebels who will still want to fight on. They will look to put their weight behind a suitable representative. But what if no suitable representative is in sight? The crisis deepens when we continue waiting for a leader to emerge and do not deem it important enough to take the lead ourselves. The phenomenon of lack of ownership comes to hit us hard again – for we don’t consider it our civic responsibility to lead towards change. We continue to wait for the messiah.

This is still not the end, for there is yet another puzzling piece to the story of political activism in Pakistan. A study of the history of political activism in Pakistan reveals one glaring fact: the religious right in our country has always been able to motivate and move people for change with considerably greater success than any other group. Main examples that spring to mind include the violent cartoon protests at the start of year, Jamaat-e-Islami’s campaigning in the 1960’s and 1970’s against the secular politics of Ayub and the Ahmadiya community. The 1980’s saw the rise of college level politics with the emergence of the student wings of the Jamaat and the PPP. Altaf Hussain is one such leader to have emerged through college politics. Two points that stand out here: a) all these uprisings involved some sort of religious issue and therefore it was easier gather support for action and b) in all of these examples there was an over-arching body [be it is the state or the parent political party] that patronized the activities of these student groups. The 1990’s saw the banishment of politics from educational institutes and therefore, it can be argued, from mainstream society as well.

Therefore, the problem faced by political activism in Pakistan is two-fold: the lack of a platform and the lack of social ownership. The silent majority does not have the capability and the will to make itself heard. It is essential, for the establishment of a healthy political culture, that change is coerced and opinions are vocalized. We need to attack the factors that work toward subduing the voice of the silent majority and instill greater confidence in their ability to bring about change in society.

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