You know how it is. You just bumble along day to day, trying to keep the balls in the air. Get to work and back in one piece. Make sure that income does not exceed expenditure come the end of the month and the details, the stuff on the periphery, tends to get neglected. All sorts of things get taken for granted. Assumptions are made. My most recent assumption gave me a bite on the ankle this week. I had assumed that people actually cared, cared beyond the superficial handwringing in the social media, about a host of things from children being married off to settle debts, to the malodorous streets of Karachi to the collective ineptitude of governance at every level everywhere in the country.
And I was wrong. They don’t. Further there is no functional ‘civil society’ worthy of the name that could be said to have the capacity — or indeed the will — to tap into the collective subconscious and get boots on the ground. Crowds on the streets. Pamphlets published in Urdu and widely distributed to trigger street activism. That can provide a lead and focus around the affairs of the day. Nothing. No charismatics have emerged outside the political sphere — and that is populated these days by wretched bottom-feeders that slither across our screens with their oleaginous performances nightly.
Maybe I overstate the case. I know at least two people in my immediate circle that are regulars at any placard-carrying event convened typically outside a press club somewhere. Honest, worthy decent people with a well-developed social conscience and a sense of what is right and what is wrong. They go, along with a couple of dozen others, to raise a voice against whatever the latest injustice may be and then go home having changed, yet again, absolutely nothing.
So it was time for a bit of background reading. In the smallest of nutshells civil society is ‘the aggregate of non-governmental organisations (yes…them…) and institutions that manifest the interests and will of the citizenry.’ It includes the family and the private sphere referred to sometimes as ‘the third sector’ of society as distinct from government and business; and is driven by individuals and organisations that are independent of government. Elements of civil society might include freedom of speech (…bells ringing everybody?) and an independent judiciary (…further campanology…) — all coming together to create the fabric of civic values.
The fabric of civic values? Give me a break. Such organisations as there are — and there are some very brave men and women out there that sometimes pay with their lives for the upholding of the values of civil society — struggle against a state that has zero interest in spreading those values and will do all it can to constrain them. Stamp them out. Let loose Rent-a-Mob every time those valiant dots on the civil society map look like they might generate traction and actually join up. Abduct and torture them. Terrorise their families. Send them into voiceless exile.
There is no civil society in Pakistan that is more than the sum of its parts because for decades the pups that might make up such an entity have been throttled once they got past the toddler stage. Nobody cares because those that might have taught them to care, imbued them with civic values, have been lynched metaphorically or actually, and those that might sympathise keep their mouths shut for fear of finding themselves in a car boot en route to having their fingernails ripped out. A powerful disincentive, I might say.
There is no organised secularism that transcends party politics and religious adherence that might be able to coalesce rational populism in any given cause. Indeed the very mention of the word ‘secular’ is likely to induce foaming at the mouth in certain sections of un-civil society — which rapidly turns into vitriol and widespread damage to property, life and limb. The mechanisms by which a functional civil society may evolve and prosper in Pakistan are there theoretically and muzzled in practice. Civil society in terms of anything other than a postcard from the edge does not exist in Pakistan, and I see no revolution on the horizon.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2017.