Pakistan:  Discussing Democracy in Islamabad

Discussing Democracy in Islamabad

by Yoginder Sikand

One of my many major grouses with the ‘mainstream’ Indian media (and
this applies to the dominant Western media as well) is the despicable
way in which it treats Pakistan. It is as if bad news about Pakistan
is always good news for the media. It is also if there is nothing at
all good in that country to write about or that anything good about it
is not ‘newsworthy’.

That grouse has been considerably reinforced after returning last week
from attending one of the most engaging and lively conferences I have
ever participated in—on Democracy in South Asia—held in Islamabad.
Hapless victim of Indian media stereotyping, I had hardly expected
such trenchant critiques of ruling class politics, US imperialism, the
misuse of religion by the powerful, patriarchal traditions and so on
by leading Pakistani politicians and social activists, and that too in
the air-conditioned comfort of the plush Government-run Convention
Centre in the heart of Islamabad, just a stone-throw’s distance from
the Pakistani Parliament. This, and the numerous wonderful Pakistani
friends that I made on this recent visit, have set me off on a mission
to do my own little bit to convince victims of the ‘mainstream’ media
in India that there is another side of Pakistan that they must know
about, about which they have been deliberately kept ignorant. Voices
for genuine democracy and social justice are increasingly vibrant and
strident in Pakistan today, and, contrary to what Indians (and
Westerners) have been programmed to believe, Pakistan is not a failed
state on the verge of being taken over by religious radicals.

The three-day conference, organized by the Lahore-based Citizens’
Commission for Human Development, brought together academics and
social activists from various South Asian countries. It was probably
the first effort of its kind held in Pakistan to discuss and debate
about prospects for democracy in South Asia that involved participants
from most of the countries in the region. All credit for this goes to
the inimitable Farrah Parvaiz Saleh, head of the CCHD, who conceived
of the project and administered every small detail that it entailed.

In his address to the conference, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Syed
Yousuf Gilani, talked about the movement for democracy in Pakistan and
suggested that the various countries in South Asia had much to learn
from each other in this regard. Somewhat the same general points were
made by Faisal Karim Kundi, Deputy Speaker of the Pakistan National
Assembly. Other leading Pakistani politicians made similar comments.

One of the most enriching presentations was by Raza Rabbani, Leader of
the House, Senate of Pakistan and senior leader of the Pakistan
Peoples’ Party. He dwelt at length with the prospects of genuine
democracy in Pakistan. He rebutted the allegation that Islam and
democracy were incompatible, arguing that this was a convenient way to
justify authoritarianism and deny democracy to Muslim peoples. This
argument, he noted, distracted attention from one of the principal
causes of undemocratic regimes in many Muslim-majority countries,
namely Western imperialism, which has a vested interest in backing
such regimes in order to serve Western economic, political and
strategic purposes, fearing that democratic regimes would refuse to
toe Western dictates. He referred to America’s strong backing to the
late Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, under whose rule Pakistan
experienced a long spell of brutal authoritarian rule, and who
supported American interests at the cost of those of the majority of
the Pakistani people. He also cited several instances of Western
powers, particularly America, actually overthrowing or undermining
democratically-elected regimes in Muslim countries. He talked about
the ‘double-standards’ of Western powers in their attitude towards
Islamic movements, as exemplified in their support to such groups in
the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and now having totally
reversed their stance. And today, despite its rhetoric about
supporting ‘democracy’ in the Muslim world, Senator Rabbani stressed,
America was consistently supporting General Musharraf, who had no
democratic mandate to rule Pakistan and who, he claimed, was bent on
putting the Pakistani Constitution into abeyance, for which he was
being solidly backed by his American patrons.

Pakistan, Senator Rabbani noted, is a federation, and can survive and
progress only under democracy (a point that applies to other such
states such as India as well). The smaller federating units must feel
that they are vital stakeholders in the system, and their economic,
cultural and political grievances must be addressed. This requires, he
argued, a genuine parliamentary system, not the quasi-presidential
system that Musharraf has converted Pakistan into, where
decision-making is confined to a single person, where the cabinet is
virtually redundant, where the Parliament has been converted into a
rubber-stamp and where a President who does not enjoy the support of
the majority of the people has the right to dismiss elected
assemblies. Obviously, Rabbani pointed out, in such a system where an
individual’s whims can rule over vital state institutions and where
the military-bureaucracy-feudal lord nexus throttles people’s voices
genuine democracy cannot flourish.

The same point was articulated equally passionately by the
cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, President of the Pakistan
Tehrik-e Insaf party. He insisted that Musharraf had no mass support
and that he was deliberately projecting to his Western backers the
erroneous specter of Pakistan being taken over by Islamist radicals if
he were removed from power simply in order to be allowed to continue
to rule the country.

A brilliant presentation by a young Pakistani scholar, Junaid Ahmad,
dealt with the question of democracy, human rights and the so-called
Western ‘civilisational’ project for the Muslim world, including
Pakistan. Ahmad noted that in recent years, particularly after the
events of 11 September 2001, neo-conservatives in America have been on
a desperate search for ‘moderate’ Muslims, that is Muslims who are
‘moderate’ in terms of their attitudes towards the American
establishment, rather than being committed to genuine social justice
and democracy. Such ‘moderate’ Muslims have little or no mass support,
and are often apologists for Western hegemony. The entire project of
‘civilising’ the Muslim world that the West has now taken on itself
reeks of the legacy of the colonial White Man’s Burden and is yet
another means to bolster Western domination. In this project, key
issues such as human rights, gender justice, poverty and
inter-community relations are allowed to be addressed simply through
Western-funded NGOs, which often have no organic links with the
masses, rather than through political mobilization. This, in turn, has
crucial consequences in terms of depoliticization of social movements
and co-optation of committed social activists as these issues come to
be discussed simply through conferences, rather than through mass
mobilisation. Further, such Western-backed ‘moderate’ Muslims and
their NGOs are, because of their financial dependence on their
patrons, not allowed to effectively critique and challenge Western
imperialism, the global capitalist system, the so-called ‘war on
terror’ and internal and external structures of oppression.

Ahmad called for the emergence of ‘organic’ or socially engaged Muslim
intellectuals (and the same could be said in the case of other
religious communities as well), strongly rooted in their communities,
working together in solidarity with others against all forms of
oppression, including in the name of religion. In this, he argued,
these intellectuals could be inspired by socially liberatory
understandings of their own faiths.

Equally trenchant critiques of ruling class politics and alliances
with imperialism were articulated by some Indian participants. Karen
Gabriel of the Centre for Women’s Development, New Delhi, spoke about
the state-sponsored virtual genocidal attacks on Muslims in Gujarat,
and of how these and other victims of Hindu chauvinism, often in
league with sections of the state machinery, have made a mockery of
India’s claims to being the world’s largest democracy. P.K.Vijayan
from Delhi University argued on similar lines, critiquing Brahminical
Hinduism from a Dalit or ‘low’ caste point of view, stressing that it
was wholly opposed to any sense of democracy. Azim Ahmad Khan,
Director of the World Learning Programme, Jaipur, elaborated on this
point by highlighting the oppressive conditions under which the vast
majority of India’s Dalits continue to groan under, suggesting,
therefore, that formal democracy, in the form of voting rights to all
citizens, was hardly enough to guarantee substantive democracy in
terms of social and economic power.

My own presentation was on the debate about Islam and democracy, in
which I sought to problematise the question by pointing to the diverse
understandings of both Islam and democracy. Based on a case study of
three noted Indian Muslim scholars, I sought to argue against the
tendency to essentialise Islam and Muslims (or any other religion and
religious community, for that matter) and pointed out the possibility
of generating contextually relevant understandings of Islam (and other
faiths) that are genuinely rooted in the quest for comprehensive
social justice and inter-faith solidarity against oppression and other
such democratic demands. My paper also entailed a critique of liberal
democracy, arguing that it was unable (and unwilling, too) to deal
effectively with structures of economic, cultural and political
oppression and hegemony.

A host of other speakers graced the conference, including several
members of Pakistan’s National Assembly, both from the ruling Pakistan
Peoples’ Party and from various opposition groups, as well as
participants from Nepal and Bangladesh, adding their own invaluable
inputs and insights.

‘This is just our first step’, the amiable Farrah Parvaiz Saleh,
organizer of the conference, assures me when we depart. ‘There is much
more that we hope to do, working with other South Asian groups for our
common cause, of genuine democracy in our region’.

People-to-people contact in this and similar ways, I can wager, I tell
her as I reluctantly head for the airport to get back to Delhi, holds
much more promise for peace and democracy in our common South Asian
region than sombre deliberations between stiff-necked sarkari babus
who are often guided by their ill-intentioned notions of ‘national
interest’.  And Farrah ji nods and smiles in that inimitable style of
hers, while my eyes get clouded at the thought of my imminent
departure and the prospect that I might never again meet the wonderful
friends I have made in Islamabad on this short trip.