Red, White and Black

Political Activism – or the lack of it
27 August, 2006, 3:35 pm
Filed under: Pakistan, Politics

Sixty years of our 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 space.

The lack of political activism in mainstream 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 last 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 one. This ruthlessly strips the issue of its moral or social standing and turns it into a scoreboard for the warring political factions. Moreover, politics, bereft of any principled and ideological stand, is considered to be dirty business that no respectable person should venture into. So we decide to take the backseat and prefer to leave it to others to do all ‘dirty’ work. There will be rebels amongst us; 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. If we study the history of political activism in Pakistan, one glaring fact that stands out is that the religious right in our country has always been able to motivate and move people for change. Albeit their true following has remained negligible. 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 uprising 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 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 a greater confidence in their ability to bring about change in society.


5 Comments so far
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Your article is fascinating, Ayesha, and of course very well written. I first came across it not on your blog but on the Tag Surfer. On your blog it is quite clear that you are writing about Pakistan. However, on the Tag Surfer it is not quite so clear. Unless I am mistaken the first mention of Pakistan does not come until the last
paragraph. This means that the reader reads most of what you have to say without knowing exactly which country you are talking about. It might have been better therefore to say which country you are referring to at the very start of the article. Am I right?

Despite this, I found the article extremely interesting and I shall certainly include your site in my blogroll!

Comment by David Hogg

Thank you for your comments, David.

Rgd tag surfer: as far I am aware it’s links up articles on the basis of the tags we end up assigning, but still your point holds valid. I will edit the start a bit.

Comment by ayesha

[…] Ayesha talks about political activism or lack thereof…in Pakistan [hat tip: BD]. Although currently different governing systems are in place in the two countries on the subcontinent, much commonality still exists. […]

Pingback by DesiPundit » Archives » Political Activism

[…] The 2007 Elections are coming up in just about an year’s time. Earlier, I had written about the lack of political activism in Pakistan. Now is the time to rectify that deplorable trend, at the very least the time to initiate the process. In Pakistan we have had abysmally low turn out rates – the last elections saw electoral participation at a mere 30%! […]

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