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July 29, 2018


In this election fever I am once again reminded of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Naya Qanoon’ [The New Law]. Written in the wake of the Government of India Act, 1935, it tells the story of Mangu, a tongawallah in Lahore, who overhears his tonga passengers and starts believing that a new constitution is being introduced in the country which will bring him respect and the natives will enjoy the same rights as their British rulers. Impatiently he waits for the new constitution to be promulgated. Once the day arrives, he feels bold enough to pick a quarrel with an English officer for being rude to him and treating him shabbily. Mangu is swiftly locked up and told by the police constables restraining him that nothing has changed.

It is not true that nothing has changed for the common person over the last 70. However, these small changes have come at a huge political cost. The British left the common people of Pakistan with an illusion of freedom. The real power was transferred to the title holders, landlords, tribal chieftains and wealthy businessmen along with the institutions of the Raj — the bureaucracy, judiciary, military and police. Over the years of our chequered political history, a clique emerged based on social class and fire power, comprising big land holders, tribal chiefs, major traders and military leadership, with the bureaucracy and judiciary playing second fiddle. Military rulers, with international backing and active support, rose to prominence and called the shots for long enough to consolidate a permanent space for their institution in matters political or otherwise — even when it is not ruling the country directly.

But we cannot deny that the most powerful institution does not always need to brandish guns; it finds willing allies among the civilian elites and the affluent middle class. In the past, the Convention Muslim League against the Council Muslim League, the PPP vis-à-vis Awami League, the Pakistan Muslim League with different suffixes — Junejo, Nawaz and Quaid-i-Azam — against the PPP, and most recently Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf challenging all others with the backing of state institutions, provide us with ample examples of the infighting between the elites with one enjoying the support of the military. Likewise, a part of the judiciary comes to aid the dominant part of the elite whenever a coup or political manipulation takes place. Today, we also see the new generations of elites seeking international approval for being modern in their outlook. But they believe the country can be fixed by tightening some administrative screws to look good in the comity of nations without them having to concede their wealth or political power. Our political process revolves around the collusive infighting of the dominant classes and institutions.

The catch, however, remains that unless we have a sustained democratic process in the country — which certainly looks plutocratic at the moment — the path to real freedom for all becomes more complex, muddled and difficult to tread. Plutocracy is a step ahead of totalitarianism. If the material conditions of people at large change and, consequently, the desire for gaining more political liberties deepens, plutocracy will last for so long. For instance, we have already witnessed interventions into the corridors of power from people belonging to the struggling classes causing fissures to appear in the plutocratic order. But material conditions for Pakistanis will only change with an increase in agricultural yield, industrialisation, infrastructure development, open trade and commerce at home, and peaceful neighbourly relations. That is what the people of Pakistan need and those articulating their interests ask for. Limited progress in that direction is made occasionally, but then much of it is reversed before full fruition.

Manto once said: “I feel like I am always the one tearing everything up and forever sewing it back together.” And my mentor I.A. Rehman tells me that we should keep repeating ourselves until we are heard.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 29th, 2018