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March 23, 2007: Celebrating the Democratic Spirit

Posted on March 23, 2007
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Politics, Society
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Abro on Military and PoliticsAdil Najam

It is impossible to ponder upon the meaning of Pakistan Day without thinking of the events happening in Pakistan right now. We are living through a historic moment, but probably not for the reason many people think it is. The debacle about the removal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the protests and clampdown that has followed has, naturally, been viewed and discussed in the context of ‘current’ events. This is as one would expect and, maybe, as it should be. However, maybe today is also a good day to think about what all of this means to the future of our polity.


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Gen. Musharraf himself, and his supporters, view this as a conspiracy against his person. It may not be a conspiracy but his opponents certainly view this as an opportunity to bring an end – or at least seriously dent – his regime. There are, of course, also those who view – or wish to construct – Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry as an arch villain or as a supreme here. He is probably neither, but as a man caught in the cross-hairs of history he is well aware of the pivotal role that his person plays out in this unfolding saga. All others – whether it be Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto on the outside or Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujaat on the inside – are using survivalist tactics in a situation that remains unstable and gives no real indications of how it might end. None of this, of course, is unreasonable on the part of those concerned. Nor is it unreasonable that they media and the public discourse fetishizes about the minutia of these interactions.

However, I believe that the larger story here is about none of the above. This is not just about what Gen. Musharraf did, not about how Iftikhar Chaudhry reacted; the real story is about how the citizenry of Pakistan reacted. There is little surprise in either the actions of Gen. Musharraf or the reaction of the Chief Justice. The surprise lies in how people reacted – Lawyers on the street, media in their newsrooms, bloggers in bloggistan, and ordinary citizens everywhere in their thaRRas, drawing rooms, email lists and everywhere else.

That is ultimately what matters. If this spirit can be sustained then the future of democracy in Pakistan is secure; whether it comes with or without the current setup. If indeed, Gen. Musharraf believes in democracy, as he says, then let him be the one to read what is on the wall and usher it in; if he does so he will have a place in history unlike that of any other military ruler of Pakistan. If not, it is now clear that the spirit will thrive despite him.

ATP on Democracy Winds of ChangeAs I have argued elsewhere on ATP, this has been Pakistan’s democratic moment; that I find it to be a moment worthy of celebration because it signifies that trapped inside an “undemocratic state” lies a vibrant and clearly “democratic society” (see my argument here). Of course, this is not a new argument for me to be making. Back in July, I had argued here on ATP that maybe the ‘Winds of Change’ in terms of democracy are beginning to gather momentum. I had argued then:

There has recently been a confluence of murmurs (and shouts) from different quarters that leads one to think that change may be brewing in Pakistani politics. I am not suggesting that the actual political apparatus in Pakistan is about to change. It might; but probably not just yet. What does seem to be changing, however, is who is talking about democracy and how… Maybe I am letting my optimism get the better of me (and I certainly do not think that we are “there” yet), but it seems that an indigenous logic, demand, and vernacular for meaningful democracy in Pakistan is beginning to take shape and, maybe, maybe, maybe, even catch momentum… It is the internal demand, the indigenous logic, and the Pakistani vernacular of democracy that is to be celebrated. I doubt if Gen. Musharraf is likely to take advice from me. But if we were listening, I would suggest to him that he should pay close attention to this vernacular. (See full post here)

Abro on CJ CrisisThat may have been a premature proclamation, but I do feel that what we are seeing now is a development in the same progression. I am always bullish on democracy in Pakistan, and the prognosis for me this March 23 is that democratic spirit remains alive and well in Pakistan. Indeed, this last week we have seen it at its most vibrant on the streets of the country. It is from this spirit that the construction of the reality will emerge. I stand committed to what I had written in an op-ed in The News back in 2004:

…there is the much-maligned argument that Pakistan’s history proves that democracy has not worked in Pakistan. This is total nonsense. If one looks at Pakistan’s history, all one finds is vast periods of non-democracy – mostly under non-elected rule, but often also under elected rule. Empirically, the only thing that one can say on the basis of this history is that non-democracy does not work in Pakistan. As one surveys the socio-political landscape one finds the country in the grips of poverty, disease, despair, sectarianism, extremism, violence, and much more. But none of these can be blamed on democracy, simply because we have never really allowed meaningful democracy for any meaningful period of time. There are many things that don’t work in Pakistan, but all evidence suggests that democracy is not one of them. At least, not yet. (See full op-ed here).

On this March 23rd, I am more confident than ever that not only can democracy work in Pakistan, it is the only thing that can. Whether our elites recognize it or not, the democratic spirit of the people can neither be tamed nor contained. Not any more.

To end, let me leave you with two things. First, since we are discussing Iqbal in a separate post, here is a verse from his poem ‘March 1907′ (it is about a different revolution, but the month is appropriate):

Guzar gaya ab woh daur saqi kay chup kay peetay thay peenay waalay
banay gaa saara jahaN mai-khaana, har ki baada khaar hoo ga

The second is the recording of a song (a taraana) that a reader sent me. He calls it the ‘Intellectual’s Anthem,’ and it really is set like an anthem… maybe too much so. But that is what catches you. Hear beyond the tune and focus on the words…

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The words, I am told, are by famous Sindhi poet Sheikh Ayaz, the song was part of an album by the group Voices in the mid-1980s and was a project overseen by another legendary figure, Aslam Azhar. Take a listen.

Artwork Credit: Abro at Flick

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