Basic rights and power structure

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PRESIDENT Pervez Musharraf’s constitutional packages have focused public attention on the political power structure in the country. True, this is important, since the wielders of power do have the options and opportunity to change macro policies which vitally determine the state of the nation.

But recent happenings indicate that many of our woes stem from the power imbalance within society itself. There are many other factors which also influence social attitudes and thereby the power structure in society.

Pakistan has yet to outgrow the feudal mindset it inherited from the mediaeval ages, which was reinforced by the colonial rulers since it facilitated their hold on the native population. This approach allows special privileges to the landowners vis-a-vis the peasants, the wealthy industrialists vis-a-vis the workers, men vis-a-vis women, the state functionaries vis-a-vis ordinary citizens, the clerics vis-a-vis the laypersons and so on. Worse still is the privileged class status a person inherits because of his birth or religion.

Each class is further stratified by an internal hierarchy of its own and there is a lot of overlapping and crossing of spheres of influence. Hence, there is no clear-cut delineation of the social power structures which allows incidents to occur such as Meerwala (jirga-ordained gang-rape of a woman) and Chak Jhumra (stoning to death of a mentally ill person for ‘blasphemy’ on the fatwa of a pesh imam). When this is compounded by the abuse of political power, an ordinary Pakistani can find himself to be quite vulnerable.

What is not generally understood is the fact that this state of affairs will continue even if the country is given a perfect constitutional system. If nothing were to change at the grassroots, the new rulers, howsoever democratically they may have been elected in a fair and free election, will proceed to abuse their new found political power to their own advantage. Being the children of a society that has no respect for human dignity or the rule of law, would they act any differently when in office? The fact is that the ultimate checks and balances in the levers of power come from the people themselves and the social mores they follow.

While colonialism arrested the social, political and economic evolution of Third World countries, decolonization has catapulted them into the post-colonial technological age quite unprepared to cope with the challenges of modernization. Hence the contradictions found in every developing state. What is the answer to this paradox?

The recently released Arab Human Development Report 2002 (AHDR) (prepared by the UNDP with the help of some Arab intellectuals) holds out lessons for other Third World countries as well. It identifies three ‘shortcomings’ which are described as obstacles to building human development. They are summarized as the ‘deficits’ relating to freedom, empowerment of women and knowledge. The report specifically calls on the Arabs to rebuild their societies on the basis of full respect for human rights and freedoms as the cornerstone of good governance, complete empowerment of women and the consolidation of knowledge acquisition and its effective utilization.

All this is so pertinent to the state and society in Pakistan that we can do well to study the report in depth — not to gloat over the Arabs’ failure but to understand our own shortcomings. The conclusions it reaches hold true for us though in varying degrees.

Take the deficit in freedom in which the Arabs have been faulted severely. Pakistanis should be grateful for the little mercies they enjoy being more free politically than many in the Arab world. But can we truly claim to be a place where human rights conditions are ideal? A quick perusal of various reports which human rights organizations and others prepare annually — be they the HRCP, the Amnesty International, the American State Department — would confirm what most of us experience in our day-to-day lives. With the state itself committing many violations of civil freedoms, it is not surprising that the privileged classes also abuse power. What is worse is that the people are not sensitized to the concept of human dignity and accept these denials and violations as something natural which was decreed for them by fate.

Of the six international human rights conventions which are taken as yardsticks by international agencies to measure the performance of a country, Pakistan has acceded to only three (with some provisos), namely the Convention on the Elimination of Racism, Cedaw and Convention on the Rights of the Child. It has kept away from the more crucial conventions on civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and on the elimination of torture. According to the ‘freedom scores’ given by the AHDR, Pakistan ranks higher than the Arab countries but is worse than Bangladesh, India and even Nepal.

The deficit of women’s empowerment is another major drawback our society suffers from. It is not generally realized that by relegating the women to a secondary status, Pakistan not only loses half the human resource potential it can draw upon to strengthen its economy. It also suffers in terms of the quality of life its citizens can enjoy by empowering its women. The fact is that the treatment meted out to women has pitched this country at the bottom of the Gender Empowerment Measure with only Djibouti behind it.

The knowledge deficit is even worse. The average adult literacy rate in the Arab world is 59.7 per cent when it is barely 50 per cent in Pakistan. In the Education Index, too, all Arab countries are much ahead of Pakistan.

With this poor record, can we really expect Pakistanis to even understand and respect libertarian principles and social justice? And that is exactly what we have to strive for. It is here that civil society should step in. Until now the role of the NGOs has been that of pressure groups. They make their voices heard when something goes wrong. Their protests often force the powers that be to redress a wrong that has been committed. But it doesn’t ensure that a similar wrong will not be committed again.

Take the Meerwala case again. It came into view when a journalist who chanced upon it reported it in an Urdu daily of Lahore. Some lawyers visited the place. Once it had been exposed, NGOs visited the scene. But the downtrodden need more visible and enduring moral support which they do not always receive in, so to say, normal times. There must have been some people in Meerwala who must also have been as outraged as us by what happened but they are not empowered and so could not resist.

The arrival of human rights and women’s rights activists on the scene at such critical moments can be reassuring to the weak. It gives them courage to stand up for their rights and resist the persecution and abuse to which they are often subjected. It should also serve to warn those drunk with power that they cannot abuse their fellow men/women in the name of tribal honour which is actually a convenient cover for their abominable deeds. It would also help restrain the police who compound the people’s agony and encourage crime by giving protection to its perpetrators.

But coming back to Musharraf’s package, some of the basic weaknesses in our society do not mean that a military government can come barging in and ride roughshod over the people’s right to have a say in their governance. After all, changing a system or institutions can be meaningful and prove lasting only if civil society is involved not only in setting the direction of change but also in carrying the process through. This calls for a holistic approach. The need is to bring about changes in attitudes and behaviour at all levels and it should be undertaken at all levels.

The major factor which can be a catalyst for change is education. It is not surprising that those who have ruled this country have not done much to spread education. Exposure to knowledge, information and new ideas broadens a person’s mind and outlook and inevitably fosters new values and norms. But those in a privileged position do not want the status quo to change. This has been best ensured by denying the masses the advantages that accrue education offers. It is time civil society stepped in to educate the people. The process of change that would be thus initiated would facilitate the breaking down of barriers to progress, advancement, justice and equity.