Skip to content

Street fighting days

[Published in DAWN, Monday, June 16th, 2008 – Editorial Section]]

By Ghazala Rahman Rafiq

WHO in Pakistan believes elections mean democracy? Iraqis learned beheading Saddam heralded neither freedom nor democracy.

Even many Americans discovered they went to war ‘not in our name’ since WMD never turned up in Iraq. Worldwide it is possible to participate in seemingly free and fair elections, vote for a party and then face a government that doesn’t represent you.

However, despite its systemic historic/current flaws, Americans continue their engagement with democracy in numerous painstaking and persistent ways. One shining example is that 45 years after Dr King’s “I have a Dream” speech, America finally produced African American Barack Obama, (middle name Hussain) as their democratic nominee.

However, ‘direct democracy’ happens when citizens bypass representatives and legislatures and make policy and law decisions in person. An example is the New England Town Meeting where anyone can walk in, debate and then vote on town policy. (Imagine being able to do this in Karachi or any where else in Sindh!) But to continually fine tune local politics Americans realised that this form of direct democracy works only for some communities. Low attendance at many town meetings makes them somewhat undemocratic.

Being genetically innovative, some Americans then proposed a ‘new and improved’ (always!) way to ‘do’ direct democracy. They focused on widespread (high tech) voting schemes that captured almost continual voting by millions of citizens on whatever proposals surfaced. The method lacked organised public deliberation about issues in question. Apparently, this form of democracy led to mere gathering of opinion polls and not an exercise of citizenship. “Wise solutions to public problems won’t likely come off the top of a hundred million heads….”, is one problem associated with this type of democracy.

A third approach to direct democracy is the ‘initiative process’. It is practicable even in beleaguered Sindh as it is locale-friendly. This method allows anyone to propose a law, get it co-sponsored by fellow citizens (signing petitions) and voted upon by the entire electorate in the next election. But experience tells us that apparent empowering of grassroots is frequently a ruse. This process has often been co-opted by special interest groups; usually moneyed in the case of the US and gun-toting hoodlums in the Pakistani instance.

If all three approaches to direct democracy raise questions about how wise or democratic they are in practice then how does one satisfy democracy’s existential demand: participation by the broad citizenry or at least those affected by the decision? This may sound bizarre and naive in a Pakistani newspaper (since the lame duck president is still in his white house), but wisdom requires that now is exactly when, at this sickening, lurching juncture, Pakistanis contemplate and offer focused consideration to such issues. The consequences involved in various democratic options always require ongoing examination. Under prevailing conditions perhaps all we can manage is a virtual rehearsal for a viable democratic life. Perhaps this time around too, we (‘demo’: the ordinary people of a community or nation) can practice (‘–cracy’: rule, government, power) only in our heads; and that too late at night, or in the dream state, while holding some daytime vision of getting it right someday….

So where does wisdom come from? In a democracy, a vital source of collective wisdom is informed deliberation among people whose diversity approximates the diversity of their community or country. Democratic innovations that embody this understanding are uncommon in Pakistan but there was a shining moment in this country’s history. Talking about his ‘Street Fighting Days’ Tariq Ali (2008) said, that while many revolutions (e.g., Czechoslavakia) of the Sixties failed, “…There’s one country where they fought for three months, the students in Pakistan, against a military dictatorship. And the struggle began on Nov 7, 1968, went on ‘til March 10, 1969 … if you look at the chronology of that struggle … it gets bigger … white-collar workers join, lawyers … women … judges come out on the streets, prostitutes get organised … It became a massive social struggle every day, the number of people getting killed gets bigger …We still don’t have accurate figures of how many people the police and army shot dead in Pakistan…. “

“…finally, when … workers began to disrupt the railways … demand was very simple: end of dictatorship, and democratic free elections…. But … Field Marshal Ayub Khan, backed by Washington and London, was standing firm, ‘til he realised he couldn’t carry on. And in March, he was toppled.”

Can we extend the term ‘deliberation’ to de-tracking railways? But then what should an informed citizenry do under a dictatorship? Violence is never condonable but it is not so hard in the Pakistani paradigm (since alternate roads are perennially blocked) to view people’s struggle in 1968-1969 as a deliberation; a huge, unwieldy but magnificent deliberation. Such deliberation produces public judgment, a far higher form of collective intelligence than mere public opinion. It would be very nice to do things peacefully. It is still the case though that broadly recognised citizen deliberation and public judgment do bring public wisdom to public power. And this power is always bestowed by direct democracy. But this power is also always, particularly in Pakistan, crushed by autocracy, whether dressed in uniform or silk.

Still, such a combination of power and wisdom begins to approach an ideal democratic form. At a minimum, at least a semblance of a bearable public life emerges where the majority of people experience a shared timbre at the heart-mind level. This has occurred in a few, magical and unforgettable instances in Pakistani history. Sadly, the anarchy which accompanied the uprisings (that were only attempting to pry open an avenue of democracy) deteriorated into mobocracy. This then, as we witnessed, fed upon itself until it was spent or bent.

Mobocracy is the state we inherited in 1947, amidst the chaos of mass immigration that is now estimated at a million plus lives. Post dictatorships (military and civilian) and post 61 years of an impotent education system, no one expects a Gandhian political response in Pakistan. Still it matters that there are, on the planet, examples of small communities and large societies’ that practice a peacetime version of the level of advanced, though chaotic, democracy, like that winter-spring (1968-69) in Pakistan.