Study Circles: Bringing Grass Roots Democracy to Pakistan

Posted on August 21, 2007
Filed Under >Athar Osama, Pakistanis Abroad, Politics, Society
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Guest Post by Athar Osama,

The idea of Study Circles to promote ‘informed’ community participation in decision-making originated in Sweden in the 19th Century. Today, study circles are used around the world in a host of different settings ranging from collaborative ‘self-education’ devices to motivate learning and learning from each other, to a to means for working on complex community projects in a participative manner, to creating grass-roots awareness of and practice deliberative democracy.

The concept of Study Circles is not new to Pakistan, or its politics either. While we’re not among the most intellectual-minded of the nations, study circles have been used in religious and political contexts before. There are instances where political parties in Pakistan have used study circles to educate and evolve collective understanding of different issues among their workers.

While we Pakistanis often gripe about the lack of well-informed and well-intentioned participation by all of us in our democracy, we hardly put our money where our mouth is. In our desperation to find an alternative to despotic military regimes or corrupt civilian rule, we often ask ourselves a question: Is there a third way? Can we create an alternate political force that can rise above the petty politics of the day to steer Pakistan towards its destiny.

I believe that there is an alternative – a third way. That third way is for all of us; Pakistanis in Pakistan and around the world; who have so far stayed on the sidelines of Pakistani politics and democracy–to educate ourselves and get involved into the politics of our country. I have often maintained that Pakistani politics–dirty as it may be–is what we have made it to be. If all good people would move away from active politics, the field will naturally be left open for self-serving opportunists and professional politicians who have only harmed our country thus far. There is no higher calling for a patriot–that all of us claim to be–but to educate ourselves and get involved with our country’s political future.

In an opinion poll currently being conducted by the Understanding Pakistan Project, two of the three most important things Pakistanis tend to believe that are absolutely necessary to bring genuine sustainable democracy to Pakistan are promoting politics of issues vs. politics of personalities and promoting democratic values within the society. Both of these are laudable goals and are likely to make an impact, yet all of us are suffering from a mental inertia as we wait for somebody else to do this for us.

While many of us take pleasure in discussing our country’s politics, how many of us have taken the time to do some research of own to better understand its issues, if only to back what are often rhetorical statements with rigorous facts? How many us have actually taken the time to prepare ourselves to speak to those around us not fortunate enough to be able to do this for themselves – our driver who takes us to work everyday, the maid who comes to clean the house, the chawkidar who works at the gate etc. Are we expecting our corrupt civilian governments or despotic military rulers to educate our masses about democratic values? Do we really believe they have an interest in doing so? Unfortunately, for all of us, and our country, we all know the solutions, but are unwilling to do what is needed to get there.

I am calling upon all educated Pakistanis to take on the mantle of leadership and help create an awareness about Pakistan’s history and politics amongst each other and its masses. Change happens one person at a time and we need to stop looking for short-cuts in changing our own lot. We’re hoping to launch Understanding Pakistan Study Circles over the next several months in major cities of the world to empower Pakistanis; and Friends of Pakistan; to educate and get to know each other and build a community committed to taking on the difficult task of engaging with, reforming, and rebuilding Pakistan through the underlying principles of the Understanding Pakistan Project. This, we believe, is the surest and perhaps the only way to creating decentralized and grass-roots democracy in Pakistan.

A Study Circle can be a group of 4-10 individuals, friends, acquaintences, or total strangers that meet on a regular basis to collectively learn and discuss Pakistan’s history and its future. These would be fairly decentralized entities with perhaps only a virtual link to the Understanding Pakistan Project and other study circles around the world. Any individual or group of individuals interested in forming a study circle may garner interest from others in their locality (city etc.) and begin the process. A Champion (or set of Champions) may create a study circle from amongst those who are already following the debate on Understanding Pakistan or recruit entirely new members for the circle. You may create one at your school, your university, your office, amongst your relatives, friends, or total strangers. You may form one with the people working at your home or in your office. You may have a women’s only circle or a men’s only circle.

Lets do this so that when we, the third generation of Pakistanis, hand over the reigns of this country to our children, we leave it as better, stronger, and more prosperous one than what our parents left to us. We may not be able to change everything in our lifetimes but atleast we would be able to hold our heads high, see them in the eye, and say, “I probably wasn’t able to solve all the problems, but I did the best I could”. Lets do the best that we can.

We strongly encourage you to consider creating or joining a study circle and take one more baby step forward towards creating a better, more democratic, and prosperous Pakistan.

About the Author: Dr. Athar Osama is a public policy analyst by profession, an amateur historian of Pakistan’s political and constitutional history by passion, and the Founder of the Understanding Pakistan Project.

14 responses to “Study Circles: Bringing Grass Roots Democracy to Pakistan”

  1. Watan Aziz says:

    “Facta Non Verba”,

    High up, almost touching the ceiling and just behind dais, was the seal of the school. On the seal were the words, Facta Non Verba.

    Very early on, we were told, it was Latin and it meant, “Deeds Not Words”. Every student of Cathedral High School, in Lahore knew that we were expected to act and not just talk.

    I have stayed with this motto all my life and shared often with my children. Not sure if I have exactly lived up to it, but try I can and try I must.

    Democracy, any talk of democracy, without a strong and independent judiciary is like tea without milk.

    Any conversation of democracy without discussion of justice and equity is like a boat without water; just not going anywhere.

    Let us the deliver the facts on the ground. Expand and empower the judiciary.

    10,000 new lower court judges.

    I do have the audacity of hope, with fierce urgency of now.

  2. Shafique says:

    Change is needed to challenge the status quo. The principle of mutual consultation – perhaps combined with consensus vision or shura should be considered as one of the tools

  3. Raza Rumi says:


    Great Initiative!

    There are several study groups that exist in the major urban centres of Pakistan. A good way would be to contact them and build on the existing social and intellectual capital.

    I did mention one called Miskeen Galli here

    I think it was also published here at ATP.

  4. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:

    Dear Dr. Athar Osama: My earlier comments have brought out strong reactions, particularly from our friend ‘Daktar’. While I admire your ideas and support your initiatives, it must not be just an intellectual exercise. Unfortunately, unless followed by an ‘action’ on the ground, these types of group discussions remain just that; discussions. No single person could profess to know all the problems ailing our people, let alone the solutions; and certainly not a person like myself. Therefore collective efforts must always be welcomed. My frustration is that we, including myself, talk and talk and never do any thing on the ground. My observation is that for economic reasons alone a very large segment of our society is unable to send its children to school. It is a vicious cycle in which generation after generation families are stuck in the rut. It is also my observation that the families who were somehow able to educate their children finally broke the poverty cycle. Your wonderful ideas have generated a buzz here and I wish you success. As the good ‘Daktar’ said “Let a thousand flowers bloom” and “different people can do different things”. I am convinced that we all love Pakistan and have best in our hearts for our people. God bless you all.

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