In human society the best and the worst comes out when it’s faced with a crisis. The best in the sense that society musters its visible collective strength as much as it brings into play its latent energies. And the worst scenario is that the under-pressure society is gripped by paralysis and its structure loosens breeding chaos that borders on anarchy.

The main plank of strategy for any mature society is to combine the actual and potential with a view to tackling an extraordinary situation that can pose an existential threat if left unaddressed. How a society responds depends on the level of its overall social development and mechanism it has evolved for its regulation known as state. Contemporary states despite sharing a number of common features have their own specifics which are a result of their different evolutionary processes that have shaped them.

Evolutionary processes are directly linked with specific geographies and histories of human societies. Why does a particular society behave in a particular manner in a crisis situation can only be grasped if we study its make-up and its relationship with its historically evolved state. We here inherited a colonial state which was alien in its nature and intrinsically anti-people. Pre-colonial feudalistic state though less alien was oppressive. State in its pre-colonial and colonial forms at best treated people as subjects and at worst as pariahs.

Relationship between state and people was of slavish nature as the state never accepted the people as citizens. They were denied their legitimate role as stake-holders in the system that regulated and governed them. The most revealing expression is found in the use of phrase “Maai Baap” which people employ, even today, when addressing and interacting with their rulers. “Maai Baap” literally means mother and father. It evokes the vivid image of parents which implies that people using it accept the rulers as their patriarchs beseeching them to be as kind as mother and father supposedly are. Now in a patriarchy parents are supposed to have absolute power and control over their offspring. Well-being of offspring is dependent on parents’ kindness or generosity, not on children’s rights as human beings. Parents’ kindness or generosity is conditional and proportionate to submissiveness shown by the children. The analogy implies the dependence of subjects on their rulers is akin to reliance of children on their parents. The relationship of dependence thus born creates slavish psyche and servile mentality. Subjects being dependent are paralytic and incapable of taking any initiative. They expect the rulers - who they accept as “Maai Baap”- to do all the things that need to be done as a gesture of benevolence, not as an obligation of public duty. Thus they are reduced to dustbins waiting to be filled. They would crib and cringe like children and delinquents hoping that everything they need would be delivered on a platter by their “Maai Baap”/ state. They never muster courage to act on their own. Such a behaviour can be seen at quarantine in the aftermath of coronavirus spread. The quarantined blast the state and the government for not doing enough to create conditions that would alleviate their sufferings but they themselves are so pathetic that they can’t even keep the place clean. So much so that they need sweepers to flush the toilets they use. This not to deny that in some respects the quarantined are being treated by the “Maai Baap”/state as lepers as if they hardly need anything other than isolation.

Another aspect of people’s slavish relationship with state is that state treats people as a herd that needs to be driven and controlled but just to the extent that is necessary to safeguard its vital interests regarding its power to control them. This can be seen in the unfettered movement of hoi polloi at public places and roads in the Punjab during the lockdown that is currently in force. No official agency stops people, who are otherwise denied such leeway, from acting out their instinctual fantasies knowing fully well that their movement can get them infected and infect others with deadly coronavirus. In this situation the unconcern shown by these people reflects their false consciousness. And attitude of the state is expressive of its apathy towards people who it takes as subjects, not citizens. So it’s paradoxical; state controls people as well lets them loose. It controls them in its core interest and leave them to their shenanigans in matters it deemed not vital at the cost of collective well-being. Subjects are expendable indeed. The state can afford to abdicate its responsibility to provide the people with protection when it’s needed most because social contract between them is not based on mutual consent. Absence of consent creates mistrust which is mutual. State doubts the pledge of people’s allegiance towards it and the people doubt the state’s pretense of its benevolence towards them. The result is that the state not sure of people’s loyalty abandons them whenever an opportunity comes up or whenever it can do so without the fear of backlash. Likewise people not sure of state’s benevolent given a chance gleefully flout the parameters imposed by the order regardless of whether they serve public good or not.

Crowds on the roads are reflection of such as a doubt-ridden fraught relationship. Since the state ruling through decree barely conceals its animosity towards the ruled, the people tend to do the opposite of what it apparently stands for. Even when state takes certain measures in genuine public interest, people doubt its intention and act out their defiance for example by thronging public spaces despite the express instructions to do otherwise in the face of outbreak of deadly coronavirus.

The unique situation created by coronavirus which needs handling at multiple levels also offers an opportunity to redefine the fraught relationship that exists between the society and the state. Redefined relationship has to be mutually beneficial; it should simultaneously ensure people’s well-being in conditions of freedom and state’s existence as the fair arbiter of public affairs and the main provider of welfare. —

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2020