Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
There is a silent revolution underway in Pakistan. This revolution is led by civil society, the true successor of Jinnah. Civil society organisations (CSOs) have changed the relationship between the state and citizen groups from othering to belonging. They have followed the path of working within the system and living within the means. The range of their work not only includes the improvement of basic services and income generation but also enterprise development, educational content development, pedagogy, legislation, public interest litigation, engagement in the electoral process, educating elected representatives, provision of legal aid to the poor and policy advocacy. These are predominantly homegrown organisations, not donor-funded contractors of ideas and deliverables. These CSOs have not demanded a share in power but acquired a share in power with the government agencies. In Amartya Sen’s language, they have created citizens’ access to power and enhanced their freedom by increasing the range of their choices. It is also important to mention here that the powerful and the weak have different ways of dealing with power. The distinction of these CSOs is that they have followed the path of solidarity with the weak and sympathetic insiders in the power structure to access power rather than the predatory path of the elite to grab political office in a zero-sum game.
Leading CSOs have unique insights about the power game in Pakistan. While there is a common belief that power rests in the hands of Generals, politicians and bureaucrats, we ignore three pillars of power at the local level that carry the burden of the entire power structure. These three pillars are the police, courts and Deradars. Deras are guest houses of local chiefs (Deradars) where they dispense the business of political patronage. These Deras are known as Otaks in Sindh and Hujras in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Deradars are descendants of the so-called Motabars (trustworthy individuals) who were appointed by the British Raj to control the local population. These Motabars replaced elected community chiefs and community waqfs that catered to the local needs for education and the development of community infrastructure. The British wiped out the waqfs in areas annexed before 1857 and also wiped out the memory of these waqfs from the educated class. Motabars became the dealmakers between the citizens, police, courts and the revenue department on the one hand, and commanded unpaid labour (begar) to perform the function of development administration below the district level.
Deradari flourishes because the patronage at the top tampers with the market and electoral process. This disables the self-correcting mechanisms of economic and political institutions. Deradars were given the respectable and glorified name of ‘electables’ by Imran Khan, and they joined him in droves in their quest for power. A Deradari culture is a form of patronage where patrons solve the problems of their clients on a case-by-case basis. This way citizens are made to see their rights as privileges. Deradars don’t solve problems through progressive legislation or across-the-board implementation of the law because they need to ask for votes in return for personal favours. People who don’t receive favours from them expect to receive favours from them in the future and like to oblige them. The best way to combat Deradari is to create local interest and action groups to access the government. Access, as noted by Amartya Sen, is power, and it can be achieved by increasing the range of choices of the people. The creation of local interest and action groups as a substitute for Deradari is one such crucial choice that is highly underrated by conventional wisdom. The process of transformation through the creation of people’s institutions led by civil society organisations is a revolution that is not seen or narrated by the media or social media. Lack of awareness of this revolutionary work of civil society creates the mystery of power and generates hope in fighting the power structure by using the methods of the powerful that lead to the victory of the elites and failure of the masses.
Hierarchy of the power structure in Pakistan:
International financial institutions (IFIs).
Generals, bureaucrats, political businesses.
Deradars – community institutions.
Vote bank handlers.
Pakistan is not a ‘hard country’, it is a ‘hard to understand country’ for the ‘instant experts’. In our power structure, Deradars manage the voters, political parties manage the Deradars, military and civil bureaucracies manage the political parties and IFIs manage the bureaucracies (or establishment). The entire system depends on Deradars. Ordinary voters can neutralise the power of Deradars in a non-threatening way. They cannot win a direct battle against the centre of power. Under the rules of the conventional battle for power, they can only win if they muster enough human and financial resources, or develop militant muscles to overthrow the power structure at the top. This is a recipe for failure in Pakistan. Ordinary citizens have found two alternatives to the politics of Deradari. One, they approach middlemen or brokers in the informal sector, Chatti Dalals, to deal with the police and lower courts, land grabbers to get shelter in Katchi Abadis (squatter settlements), and money lenders to seek loans when the bread earner of a family falls ill. Two, if they are lucky they can benefit from the services of a Panchayati. Panchayatis are local leaders who know how to resolve disputes within the community, cultivate insiders in the government, and provide their services without compensation. They take the same approach that is taken by local philanthropists and thoughtful CSOs. CSOs can win the war against Deradars only by organising communities of interest to access power without going through the electables. If they win numerous battles at the local level they can bring down the power at the top. Access to power in a nonpartisan way at the local level is a revolutionary path for the people.
In this context, it is important to revisit the idea of revolution. As noted by David Graeber in the context of the socialist revolution: “Revolution is not when palaces are seized or governments are overthrown, but when we change the ideas of what is common sense.” Graeber also proposed the notion of everyday revolution, an idea that redefined revolution as a moral principle rather than a political ideology. CSOs in Pakistan have made a revolution by upholding the moral principle of willingness to learn from and cooperate with the ‘other’. As eloquently stated by Prince Karim Aga Khan in his speech in Kabul in 2007: “Civil society (is) a realm of activity which is neither governmental nor commercial, (it stands for) the institutions designed to advance the public good, but powered by private energies.”
Our elites believe in the use of coercion, misinformation and deception to deal with differences of opinion and diversity of economic interests. The failure to settle disputes through dialogue inside and outside parliament has led to crackdowns on sane voices under various civilian and military dispensations. It has taken the form of poll rigging before, during and after the elections, dismissal of elected governments, violation of the Constitution and attacks on the judiciary and institutional boundaries and authority. This has enabled elites to undertake open and hidden, legal and illegal loot and plunder of Pakistan’s economy and incur a high level of national debt. This financial debt has been created due to our moral and intellectual deficit. We can clear our financial debt only by clearing our moral and intellectual debt. In this context, it is important to remember that revolution in the narrow sense of reforming the governance system in Pakistan only means replacing Deradars, the linchpin of our power structure, with people’s organisations.
We also need to reflect on our concept of piety, which consists of private worship and ignores social responsibility. Our concept of resistance needs to be informed by the fact that confronting state violence with street violence is a recipe for more violence, not a path to democratic transformation. The solution for our moral crisis lies in transparency, documentation of the economy, and trust building. We need legislation to reform our tax policies, land procurement practices, provision of subsidies, size of the defence budget, and revisit our defence strategy. We need to strengthen the constitutional path for democratic reforms and realise that crossing institutional limits and shirking social responsibility is another form of violence. We need a new social contract based on the discourse of belonging, not othering, in decision making. A new social contract has taken the form of a silent revolution in Pakistan. This silent revolution is being led by civil society.
We need to convert the treasure of practice-based knowledge generated by civil society in Pakistan into academic knowledge for the youth. The value of civil society work can be understood with reference to four practice spaces, three infrastructures, four levels of failure and two parallel approaches that provide the key to harnessing the potential of the people. Leading CSOs have provided us with unique insights into the state-civil society relationship in Pakistan. While there is a common belief that power rests in the hands of the elites, we ignore four subspaces in the cartesian space between the state and civil society defined by the goals on the horizontal axis and means on the vertical axis. This space is divided into four subspaces: (i) CSOs and the state collaborate when they have common goals and means; (ii) they cooperate when they have common goals and different means; (iii) they confront each other when their goals and means are opposed, and (iv) co-opt when they have common means and uncommon goals. This insight opens the door for enormous cooperation in subspace (ii) and creative strategies for interaction in subspace (iii). Creative strategies in subspace (iii) can be designed keeping in view four different levels of state failure: 1) low allocation for social welfare; 2) underspending the allocated budget; 3) underutilising the spent budget, and 4) underperforming on the utilised budget. Here, starting from the fourth level of failure provides a good entry point to build bridges with the government and move gradually to the first level. Engagement with the government depends on the three infrastructures – administrative, political and social – that are fractured. CSOs can act as support organisations (SOs) to fill this gap. This work is better done in a process-based approach, not the donor’s favourite template-based approach.
Under the process-based approach, creation of local interest and action groups led by a SO is the way carved out by civil society for social transformation. This path is not seen or narrated by the media, social media, or academia. Compiling and using the case studies of civil society successes is the best way to groom young professionals to continue spreading the trailblazing work of CSOs.
Civil society initiatives have not defanged the state power but succeeded in finding a seat at the bargaining table side by side with the elites. Civil society’s strategy for social transformation by using the “art and science of linking with the ‘other’” provides the best opening for meritocracy. It should not be confused with the politics of patronage. Access to basic services through political patrons has led to the installation of thousands of dysfunctional water supply schemes, the existence of thousands of ghost schools and hundreds of rural clinics, and the pilferage of medicines. On the other hand, civil society organisations engaged in evidence-based dialogue succeeded in regularising 500 informal settlements constituting 50 percent of Karachi’s 20 million population, providing access to water and sanitation services to millions of people, preventing evictions of thousands of residents of informal settlements based on mapping of these settlements, doubling the income of 100,000 families in the most treacherous mountain regions of the world located in Pakistan and providing access to credit to millions of micro-enterprises and farmers.
During the past three decades formal sector builders, planners and contractors have been eyeing the rural settlements for developing mega city projects. Residents of these villages had lived there for centuries and possessed land based on customary arrangements. They had no legal documents to prove their ownership of the property that they possessed. These residents were, therefore, under continuous threat of eviction by commercial land grabbers in collusion with government officials. Government data showed that there were only 400 rural settlements around the metropolitan city of Karachi. Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) found that 2,000 such settlements existed and could be encroached upon by land grabber mafias. Village residents could not secure any protection from government officials, politicians, or rights-based organisations as they had no legal ownership documents. OPP very patiently and quietly mapped all these settlements and due to its evidence-based work the government agreed to give land titles to 1,063 of these settlements by April 2010.
Meritocracy’s role is cut out to follow pluralist practice, not the polarised approach in dealing with the centre of power. Fragments of pluralist engagement practice are scattered here and there but not well recognised in academia.