Newspaper Articles

Dealing with the divides: Aman Ittehad – by Babar Sattar

Dealing with the divides
Legal eye

Saturday, March 27, 2010
Babar Sattar

In October 2009, concerned citizens and activists from all four provinces and Islamabad congregated in Murree to develop a shared vision for peace in Pakistan and consider the role of the civil society in promoting it. The initiative entitled “pathways to peace”, led by the Omar Asghar Khan Foundation, underscored the urgent need for ordinary citizens to shun their sense of helplessness (or apathy), and take responsibility to strive for peace and eradicate the roots of violence. The participants elected to call this citizen movement ‘Aman Ittehad’. As a first step, Aman Ittehad observed ‘solidarity day’ on January 1, 2010, at 53 locations around Pakistan, to swear allegiance to unity amongst citizens on the basis of peace and tolerance.

Buoyed by the enthusiastic response of citizens to the spirit, purpose and mission of Aman Ittehad, it was decided to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Lahore Resolution with introspection. The idea was to hold citizen assemblies and propose a peoples’ resolution aimed at reorienting the society and reinventing the state to realise the original dream that led to the creation of Pakistan. Pakistan Day and its traditional pomp meant to memorialise the Objectives Resolution passed in Lahore on March 23rd, 1940, rightly invokes some cynicism with many wondering if there is much to celebrate about the state of our union. Instead of giving in to defeatism, Aman Ittehad invited ordinary citizens to reiterate the resolve to create a progressive nation-state that the industrious citizens of Pakistan truly deserve.

The scale of the initiative can be gauged from the fact that almost 80 assemblies were convened in the week leading up to Pakistan Day across the four corners of Pakistan: Mingora, Mardan, Takhtbai, Batkhela, Swabi, Abbottabad, Peshawar, Balakot, D.I.Khan, Garhi Habibullah, Bisham, Allai, Haripur, Lora, and Mansehra in the NWFP; Dadu, Karachi, Sukkur, Nawabshah, Sanghar, Tharparkar, Jamshoro, Badin, Hyderabad, Shikarpur, Ghotki, Larkana, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, and Khairpur in Sindh; Loralai, Sibi, Noshki, Jaffarabad, Naseerabad, Quetta in Baluchistan; Lahore, Dera Ghazi Khan, Faisalabad, Multan, Mianwali, Layyah, Toba Tek Singh, Rajanpur, Bahawalpur, Gujranwala, Sargodha, Okara, Bhakkar, Lodhran, Murree, Attock, Taxila, and Rawalpindi in Punjab; Khyber Agency, Mohmand Agency, and Kurram Agency in FATA; Skardu and Gilgit; and Islamabad.

This unprecedented consultative process and brainstorming culminated into a peoples’ resolution that was formally adopted by a citizen’s assembly convened in Lahore on the eve of Pakistan Day. It was agreed that the country needs an executive that is transparent in its functioning and accountable to the wishes of the people, a parliament that incorporates laws, policies and governance mechanisms in order to transform Pakistan from a security state to a welfare state, and a judiciary that makes the promise of legal equality a reality for each citizen and dispenses justice to all with independence and equity. It was resolved that Pakistan “ought to become a state that provides justice, quality healthcare and education, and livelihood for all citizens…and a state that lives in peace and actively enables its citizens to do so.”

The peoples’ assembly also forewarned that “no constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to its people unless provinces are autonomous and governed according to the aspirations of people of the province that exercise complete control over their resources that are used equitably for the benefit of the citizens.” And further demanded that “a social contract must be framed between citizens, and between citizens and the state” and that “all policies, international and inter-provincial relationships [of the state] must conform to the collective will of the people expressed as the new social contract”.

Peace talk or the shared resolve of ordinary Joes to fix their country through incremental change is just not sexy enough to make headlines. But if the rule of law movement offered one lesson, it was that only an effective social movement led by ordinary citizens will usher progressive change in Pakistan and not elites that are current beneficiaries of our skewed legal, political and institutional structures. Ruling elites only submit to change once a committed group of citizens, disinterested in seeking power for themselves, uninhibited by skepticism or ‘conventional wisdom’, and imbibed with an unwavering desire to venture into cloud-cuckoo-land, create a social movement that resonates with the citizens-at-large and becomes popular. Given the structure, composition and dynamics of Pakistan’s political and state institutions, the change we crave will have to bottom-up.

While there are no quick fixes for the multifarious problems afflicting us, it doesn’t take a rocket-scientist to identify the direction of desirable reform. Let us start with the three major fault lines that bedevil our polity and inspire fear, hate and violence: our civil-military imbalance; the center-province divide; and the conservative-liberal disconnect.

If Pakistan is to be a stable sustainable democracy, the army chief simply cannot continue to be the most powerful individual in the country. Notwithstanding scandals of corruption and the low esteem in which our khakis hold our politicos, the principles of democracy and constitutionalism require that our generals must be completely accountable to us through our elected representatives. The prerequisites for readjusting the distorted balance between civilian and military institutions in Pakistan include an end to the army’s monopoly over Pakistan’s national security discourse, and rationalisation of its commercial interests and jealously guarded control of vast public resources including land. Pakistan’s transformation to a welfare state will not begin so long as the contours of national security and national interest are defined exclusively by khakis.

If Pakistan was envisioned as a union of Muslim majority provinces and is described as a federation under the Constitution, the federating units must be afforded necessary freedom and autonomy. Will this reduce the ability of the center to control the provinces and what they do within their boundaries? Will reorganisation of the concurrent list cut the federal government to size? Absolutely. Is that not what the concept of a federation is fundamentally about? Must we continue to nurture the paternalism inherited from our colonial masters and predict doom if heaven forbid the provinces become the masters of their fortune?

And if Pakistan is to emerge as a peaceful and tolerant Muslim state do we not urgently need to disband the self-appointed guardians of morality and religion who believe they have a monopoly over the understanding of God’s scriptures and the right to impose their will on others? Can our parliament really emerge as the bedrock of democracy unless the primary focus of MPs shifts from dispensing patronage to writing laws? Can the chief justice single-handedly defend the constitutional rights of each citizen, notwithstanding the number of suo moto actions he takes each day, if district courts remain in the state of disarray that they presently are? And can any government convert a predatory state into one focused on citizen welfare when budgetary allocations for education and public health remain miniscule and PSDP is the expense of choice to get slashed in face of any deficit?

As a state and a society we need to give up our obsession with control and get comfortable with difference of opinion and dissent. We need to build the foundations of a peaceable society on an education system that engenders tolerance and a justice system that defends the constitutionally guaranteed rights and choices of each citizen. But none of this will come about so long as we await a messiah to come along and rescue us from evildoers. Citizens will have to take responsibility for auditing the performance of state and political institutions and actors even outside the formal representative processes. The hope for change primarily springs from the unwillingness of Pakistan’s youth (that forms a majority of our population) to squander and sacrifice its future to the corrupt and bigoted social and political ethos that our older generation has grown comfortable with. And it is citizen movements such as Aman Ittehad that have the potential to become agents of change.

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
Email: sattar@post.harvard.edu

Source: The News