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Where will change come from?

September 17, 2013

TO want new things in old ways is to consign oneself to despair, frustration, anger and impotence.

That at least was my conclusion after attending an event organised by activists to deliberate on poverty and the rights of citizens. As the meeting progressed, I sensed a shadow descending between the desire and plan for its realisation.

The event commenced with a presentation of economic and social data — growth, employment generation, cost of living, income inequality, poverty estimates, access to services, allocations to the social sectors, etc, etc.

There followed a discussion that more or less ignored all the nuances of the presentation save in a generalised sense that the situation was terrible and unacceptable. One after another speakers engaged in extended rants excoriating all governments for exploiting the people and pillaging the country’s resources for personal ends.

Many heartbreaking incidents were narrated and, as is natural in such gatherings, people felt compelled to top one gruesome anecdote with another.

One could not help concluding there was an enemy whose identity was clearly recognised, whose motivations were thoroughly exposed, and whose callousness was never in doubt. Even those who had served governments joined in the affirmations.

Having thus exhausted themselves, the participants were relieved by the announcement for tea. Refreshed and recharged, they returned with new vigour for the next round.

The objective of the meeting, we were informed, was to prepare a charter of demands on behalf of citizens to be presented to the government. It was here that I felt the first pang of doubt but there was no time to indulge it as the discussion had picked up.

The speakers took turns again and most alluded to human and civil rights in the West as models for what was needed in Pakistan. It was a long list.

After a relatively orderly discussion, a period of panic ensued when several participants feared their constituency might be ignored. Distressed cries to add various motley items emanated from nooks and crannies and were duly accommodated.

It was now time for the concluding session when the strategy to obtain the aforementioned rights was to be debated. It was here that my doubts came flooding back.

The talking began anew and speaker after speaker, most of them ardent and veteran trade unionists, indulged in equally emotional rants about what the government should or ought to do for their constituencies.

Suggestions covered the entire spectrum of the demands that had been listed in the earlier round — the government should provide education, health, clean water, public transport, unemployment benefits, social security, justice, etc, etc.

It became hard for me to reconcile the pre- and post-tea discourses, the identification of the enemy and the calls to it for amelioration. The first thought that crossed my mind was courtesy of Mir Taqi Mir pointing to the naiveté involved in seeking a cure from the very person who made one ill:

Mir kya saada hain bimar huay jiske sabab usi attaar ke laundey se dawa letey hain

Literature often provides an anchor for a perspective that the social scientist can then explore for further insights. I reflected on the happenings of the day as I filtered out with the crowd after a crowning cup of tea amidst much bonhomie and backslapping.

My overwhelming sense was one of disorientation. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, my desires emerging from the present and my responses from the past. The world had changed while attitudes seemed lagging behind.

In the case of the event being described, it seemed that the evolution of citizenship rights in the West had a profound influence on the aspirations of the participants. At the same time, the mechanisms for the realisation of those aspirations remained deeply rooted in the monarchical traditions of South Asia.

The whole process to which I had been a witness could well have been enacted during the Mughal Empire — subjects frustrated with an uncaring ruler pleading for redress of their grievances, the grievances themselves listed, in no particular order, on a scroll to be presented to the ruler in question. The image was hard to shake of the golden chain of justice with its 60 bells that any subject could pull to summon Emperor Jahangir himself to a hearing.

Notwithstanding our traditions, it was still disconcerting to find hardened trade unionists whose life had been spent mobilising labour against employers, looking up to and pleading with a sovereign to grant them their rights, the same sovereign they had castigated in such categorical terms just moments earlier.

There seemed scant realisation that like Europe we too now exist in a post-monarchical age, one characterised by sovereignty of the people and representative government. And, that in such an age, one looks to citizens, not rulers, for the dynamic of change.

We live in the age of citizens, not subjects, and politics, not pleading, is the instrument for change in our times. The information culled from the presentation of economic and social data needs to be turned not into a charter of demands but a compelling narrative for the voters. And trade unionists and political activists need to busy themselves mobilising voters around that narrative.

Only when citizens articulate their needs, understand the causes for their remaining unfulfilled, and use the power of the vote to transform them into effective demands, will the state feel compelled to pay heed to them.

The meeting that had started with a bang had ended with a whimper. The chain of justice is gone while the power of the vote remains unused. Our activists are looking up when they should be looking down.

The writer is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.