Civil Society in Pakistan and India: A Study in Contrast

Much has been said and written about the contrasting state of civil society in Pakistan and India. Essentially civil society took root in India in the post-war era while in Pakistan it did not.

It succeeded in India because the political leadership that emerged following independence was deeply committed to secularism and parliamentary democracy, and because, unlike most newly independent states, that leadership was determined to keep the military out of politics, subordinated to civilian authority. It failed in Pakistan because political power quickly lapsed into the hands of a coterie of generals, mullahs, landlords and bureaucrats who hijacked the tremulous beginnings of popular government and opted instead for military dictatorship legitimized by ideological jingoism.

Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland stated the contrast between the two countries very well in his Aug 19, 2007 column. Referring to the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the two states, he wrote: "India celebrated its 60th birthday with a raucous parliamentary debate over nuclear energy and its new strategic relationship with the US, while Pakistan marked the same occasion by sinking deeper into the past," producing "a cycle of disasters for the...nation - aided by the hidden hand of US diplomacy working to preserve President Pervez Musharraf's dwindling power in Islamabad."

This difference has recently culminated in the execution of Benazir Bhutto after she returned to Pakistan to try and vitalise the country's political institutions in a manner that would have narrowed the contrast between India's and Pakistan's political cultures and reduced tension between the two countries.

Viewed in sociological terms, it can be said that the difference between India and Pakistan today is a result of the structural implications of the political choices, which the leaders of these two emerging nations made at the time of independence and in its immediate aftermath. The framework for political institution-building had been created through the interplay between the British Raj and the nationalist parties - especially the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League - during the interwar years which culminated in the Government of India Act of 1935.

Although based upon a limited franchise (around 15 percent of the adult electorate), and encumbered by communal constituencies, a high percentage of nominated assembly members, and the pre-emptive powers of the viceroy, this document nevertheless envisioned true democracy as an eventual end result; it was an instrument which could readily be modified to facilitate universal adult suffrage, party-structured government, and a federal aspect able to accommodate the plethora of regional ethno-linguistic cultures which subdivides the Indian subcontinent.

Thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru and the Congress party, India opted for unadulterated Westminster democracy by completely eliminating the pre-emptive powers inherent in vice-regalism, universalising the franchise, federalising the government, establishing party-structured parliamentary bodies at both the national and provincial levels, awarding real legislative powers to the provincial bodies, and completely subordinating the military to civilian authority. The result was and continues to be a secular governmental system, which has successfully encouraged consensus by managing diversity, modulating domestic social conflict, and conducting external affairs (including wars with Pakistan and China) with balanced circumspection.

Pakistan, unfortunately, chose a very different course, which after six decades has led that country to the brink of institutional disintegration, political chaos and descent into a cauldron of Islamic extremism. Its people have been enticed into a political desert by their own leaders who placed political opportunism, a phobic hatred towards "Hindu India" and reactionary Islamism, ahead of social reform, economic development, and political reconciliation with its varied ethnic communities, and neighbour India.

The decision to go this route has complex roots, which date back to the separatist movement and the quest for a national identity. Their alleged purpose was to create a unitary state that forcibly homogenised the plethora of regional and primordial social, sectarian and cultural formations contained within the borders of the Pakistani state into a composite, mono-linguistic political culture. It was equivalent to a single power endeavouring to wipe out the differences between the countries of Europe by imposing a single language (say, French or English) and religion (say, Catholicism) on them all. The Hindutva movement and its historical antecedents have had similar aspirations for India, which fortunately have thus far come to naught.

The idea of a unitary, monolingual, ideologically pure state for Pakistan imposed by political and military fiat was a doomed enterprise, for the same reasons that Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin failed to achieve it in Europe, and Jawaharlal Nehru successfully prevented the Hindu nationalists from trying to impose it on India. Regional, cultural and linguistic nationalisms are too deeply rooted to be eradicated; they must be accommodated under the rubric of confederation. India realised this and resultantly is at peace with itself; at least, as much as state systems can ever be at peace with themselves. Pakistan rejected the "federal" solution and today is paying the price - four military dictatorships, the judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the jehadi "execution" of his daughter Benazir...etc. In today's Pakistan, Islamic extremism is breathing down everybody's neck.

In the broad sociological perspective, Pakistan has failed because it ignored the basis for all successful polities in the South Asian historical matrix. The fact that all successful political regimes dating back to the earliest states and dynasties, whether Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, culminating in the British Raj and the Republic of India, have consistently been based upon the South Asian political model - that is, multicultural accommodative politics which fits all the regional components into a federal structure that allows "differences" to thrive under an ideologically neutral, or at least, accommodative (i.e., secular) political doctrine.

Pakistan desperately needs to revert to the South Asian political model and curtail its Wahhabist and anti-Indian obsessions.

(Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia. He can be contacted at Harold.Gould4@verizon.net)


More by :  Harold A. Gould

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