The reason we are undemocratic

Published: July 14, 2010
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The urban middle class is apathetic and seeks to maintain the existing class structure

I have heard enough venom spewing out of the lips of my upper middle class friends that I’m tired of it. They yearn for a change, yet do nothing and in reality do not want anything to be done.  The existing class structure is exploitative and works in their favour, and they want to keep it that away.

As many have put it aptly, democracy is not an end but a means to an end. But our society is undemocratic in its basic structures and an undemocratic society neither understands democratic debate, nor understands the benefits of it. Democratic societies exist on tolerating debate and dissent, something that is inherently absent in our culture. Our social structure is based on sycophancy, kinship and patriarchy, machoism, knee jerk reactions and since the Zia years a focus has been on public displays of religiosity and inherent hypocrisy. Much has been written on the general state of society, hence I’ll focus on an example that I see has never been highlighted as being one of the basic undemocratic structures. Let me give you the example of one of the most undemocratic institution in Pakistan – the school.

The first wrong step

The school is supposed to inculcate knowledge and enhance your understanding of the world. Across the world, schools teach children the virtues of pluralism and democracy. Not ours.

The best example of “selection” rather than “election” is our schools. From the lowest of grades, class and school elections are held across the world. The best functioning democracies have election for student councils as early as first grade. In our culture, the overlords who are the teachers and the principal (who beat up kids often as well) select a ‘class prefect’ to maintain their dictatorship of silence in their absence and report the names of ‘defaulters’ to them, teaching kids that snitching pays off. The selection is based almost entirely on academic standing, with high value given to ‘discipline’ as well. Discipline of course a subjective thing but keeping in mind our archaic notion of ‘positive discipline’ that requires teaching kids to be obedient through force rather than teaching them to utilize their creativity and energy, leads to in almost all cases the teacher’s blued eyed boy/girl being “selected” to oversee a group of his peers. The class monitor or prefect maintains a list where he notes down the names of kids that talk in the absence of the teacher from the class room (sometimes on the blackboard). In the illegally established, yet booming world of residentially housed private educational institutions which lack any sort of playgrounds, running in the small playgrounds is prohibited in many cases as this leads to altercations and injuries. The prefect maintains a list of kids who run in the small playground, something that would come naturally to kids. The names noted down may receive some sort of punishment and are reprimanded by school authorities. The lesson is that patronage and snitching pays off and being in the good books of the instructor is far better than being loyal to your friends. I’m not saying that we should promote anarchy somehow, but we should teach our kids that sycophancy is a bad thing. If the blue eyed culture has roots in the very basic education system then why would we expect our entire bureaucratic culture not to be the same?

The “school headboy/headgirl” stuff is also selected rather than elected. The people “selected” are always done so for their docility, their conformity with set standards, their obedience and their “discipline” (the same way the British selected their soldiers). The whole school is the dictatorship of the Principal, the classroom is the dictatorship of the teacher and the playground is the dictatorship of the PT Instructor. Don’t even mention madrassas where the teachers are known to be brutal, beat up the kids in many cases to death.

How the problem spreads

Our student politics has been so violent primarily because of the lack of a democratic and political environment. Because there is no form of any progressive student politics before undergraduate level, as soon as the students come to terms with their new found freedom, they go wild. The involvement of criminals and the use of the student federations and unions from the political parties themselves is another factor but if we have people participating in school elections since their early days, some of them will become passionate about general politics, learn the tricks of the trade, and know how to run a council by the time they reach university. They are entire books on the subject of school council elections published in English, French and other “western” languages owing to the importance associated with school elections.

Similarly, our institutes of higher learning are generally undemocratic. In some of the biggest universities of the country, there still exists a system of honours and appointments handed out by the university authorities. Besides most universities make you sign an inherently illegal and unconstitutional stamp paper oath that you’ll not participate in politics on campus (the rich don’t care about the law anyways). The specialization of campuses (medical university, engineering university, etc.) contributes much to this lack of diversity that leads to such a boring and unimaginative environment where there is a visible absence of any political debate. The lack of political debate amongst students is visible (talking about corruption does not mean talking about political ideology, political economics and political philosophy). Even at the university level, societies and clubs do not elect their heads; most are selected and in many cases appointed by virtue of their seniority. There is visible absence of any sort of campaigning on campus. Campaigning does not mean holding a political rally but covers campaigns for council elections, campaigns for a social cause and generally organizing gatherings on issues of social, political and national importance. I know there are campuses that are notable exceptions, but the overall campus environment is extremely non-conducive to political debate and democratic grooming.
Devolution of power is described in our books, in our public debates and in the general public understanding as a primary factor in the destruction of a nation. This is the product of years of military dictatorships that federalized power. Even when the local governments existed, I can easily state that greater than 90% of the readers here never knew about the location of their union council office and never cared to know about it either. The centralization of power is visible in our society as well where a single hereditary tribal sardar, vadera or sain holds Jirga and over-rules all decisions. The home is the dictatorship of the male as well, where no heed is paid to the women’s voice. Males pay no attention and deny women the right to have their voices heard in household matters. This can be attributed both to misogyny but is yet another visible sign of autocratic rule.

Trade unions have been banned more than once. Student unions have been banned time and again. The dreaded “seniority” is still the biggest factor in promotional framework. We still associate age and seniority as having direct correlation with wisdom. We have no school board elections and no way to elect a hospital board (how many schools and hospitals are there anyways?). The public safety commissions are selected rather than elected. The GOR bureaucratic elite maintain their secrecy and are invisible to the people. The people have no role whatsoever in the general working of the state. But the blame lies with the people as well who refuse to participate in the system and do not demand greater role in the functioning of the state.

An undemocratic way of life

Our institutions are undemocratic, because we are undemocratic. Our society revolves around biradiris, kinship and family ties rather than debate, dissent, consensus and there is little praise for intellect, talent and ability. The whole school system is undemocratic. All this is besides the fact that our textbooks glorify war, teach intolerance, inculcate xenophobia, indoctrinate a mindset of conspiratorial thinking and give a world view of the clash of civilizations. The word “democracy” is demonized by our society and our textbooks alike. All out textbooks and public discussion revolves around finding a God-sent “leader”, the oxymoronic “benevolent dictator” and somebody who will take this out of this mess. The world does not work that way. Policies breed a progressive society; one person alone cannot pull off such a massive task and change the fate of a nation.

Since we have no social structure of democratic debate and absolutely no importance is imparted to democratic norms and institutions of authority and the whole social structure is that of sycophancy, patronage and allegiance to overlords besides the obsession with glorified personnel dictating the will of the state through the barrel; then it’s no wonder that we’re always yearning for “benevolent dictators” to “discipline the masses.”

How do things change?

One should demand better accountability and slowly the current lot will cease to exist in the political class. As long as you do not do your nation the honour of walking to the polling station, standing in line with “ordinary” people (as there might be no “jaanay wala” who will break the queue for you like the way all upper middle class people are treated at NSRCs, passport offices, traffic police offices and so on..) and trying to at least vote your way in. Don’t believe anybody is worthy of your vote? Double, triple stamp it and render it useless and don’t leave the possibility of your vote being misused in rigging. Our upwardly mobile urban middle class is apathetic to the state of affairs, seeks to maintain the existing class structure. They find voting below their “dignity” and are inherently self-righteous. Describing yourself proudly as “apolitical” and “I-hate-politics” does not make you cool, it just shows that you’re an obnoxious, narcissistic idiot who was born by the accident of birth into a family of financially well off people and cannot care less about the people and the future of this country.

This attitude stems from the incapability of corrupt politicians and crooked bureaucracy to govern, which has forced the people to not just hate the people in power, but the democratic process itself. Politicians and top level government officials have never shown the necessary leadership, sense of duty, responsibility, passion to serve and moral uprightness. The general cynicism is visible in the hatred for the very system of governance, the lack of faith in the ability of the government and the desperation to seek a paradise home outside the country, which is alarming for a country facing major crises. To re-establish public trust in the government is a tall task indeed and it requires patience and support of the people and vision of the politicians; progressive politics that focuses on the welfare of the people and supports social justice.

Competent, visionary and articulate and radical leaders don’t emerge suddenly. You don’t grow parliamentarians when there are no parliaments for decades and there is no progressive political debate or democratic culture within the society. Only after a continuous process of democratic governance, where citizens play their part and seek accountability and demand better governance, can we look forward to an economically, socially and politically progressive society. As long as we continue to blanket cover “corrupt politician” and teach this to our kids (breeding hate?), we might never see an effective political culture. What the future demands from us today is to give better policy inputs, demand accountability from our local legislators, demand to meet our legislator for effective debate frequently, encouraging democratic norms in our society and unless we create an environment of democratic norms within the social structure, there is no hope. This requires commitment, perseverance and resolve from the public.

Shahid Saeed

Shahid Saeed

An undergraduate student of engineering with a passion for history and public policy. Shahid writes on development, geography and political economics

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.