THE recommendation, some days ago, for the withdrawal of criminal charges against the owners of a Karachi factory in which over 250 workers were horrifically burned to death last September went virtually unnoticed.
It was reported in passing that the prime minister himself intervened in the matter at the urging of Karachi industrialists. The prime minister’s disdain for working class Pakistanis was matched by all mainstream politicians, TV anchors, intellectuals and the rest of so-called ‘civil society’, which collectively failed to muster even a single protest against the decision.
What does this deafening silence say about our much-threatened democratic order? I do not want to suggest that the appalling state of affairs facing industrial workers is the only pressing problem in society.
There are many other life-and-death issues facing ordinary people. Unfortunately, our elected rulers — alongside the makers of public opinion — appear to be interested in taking up almost none of these issues.
It is a fact of history that democracy in Pakistan has been butchered by the men in khaki and their loyalists in the civil bureaucracy and higher judiciary. It is also true that a large number of our elected politicians have been at the beck and call of unelected institutions of the state, dutifully invoking ‘national security threats’ as and when required.
Over the past five years many of these politicians have both admitted to their mistakes in pandering to the military establishment, and vowed to never again repeat them.
It is thus that a narrative of resurgent Pakistani democracy has been doing the rounds. The consensus generated on constitutional amendments and countering extra-constitutional initiatives of any kind has been touted as historic. There is a better than good chance that the country will never again be burdened by direct military rule.
But democracy cannot surely be reduced only to the negation of military rule. Even if one ignores the fact that the men in khaki have dominated the polity, society and economy when they have been out of government as well, there must be an accounting for the failures of those who govern to meet the needs of the people who elect them.
There is no gainsaying that bourgeois democracy offers little respite to the subordinate classes in this society. Working people have neither been freed from the suffocating oppression of colonial state institutions nor protected from the vagaries of the ‘free’ market. The fault lines of caste and gender remain deeply entrenched and often bespeak cruelty. A quite compelling argument can be made that bourgeois democracy is nevertheless imperative if we are to live down the growing ethno-linguistic divide in this country. That is to say that without a genuinely federal democratic order conflict between the constituent nations (Pakhtun, Sindhi, Baloch, Seraiki, Punjabi, etc.) of the Pakistani state will be impossible to contain.
Indeed it was the very fact that our holy guardians refused to hand over power to the majority party after the 1970 general election which led to the secession of the eastern wing. Subsequent suspensions of the democratic process have undoubtedly exacerbated ethnic tensions by reinforcing the ethnic imbalance within the structure of power.
Having said this, bourgeois democracy in and of itself does not guarantee redressal of this structural imbalance. Karachi is a case in point: formally democratic institutions in the most diverse city of the country have become a means to suppress certain ethnic groups rather than ensure their rights.
There is no question, therefore, of giving a blank slate to the contemporary democratic order by invoking the threat of dictatorship.
We do not constantly need reminding of the destruction that has been visited upon this society by the military establishment; what we need is for the real problems of the people — in whose name democracy exists — to at least be taken up within the political and intellectual mainstream, even if these problems will not be meaningfully addressed in the immediate instance.
Those who have struggled for the establishment (and restoration) of democracy in the past will do so again if need be in the future. But who will struggle for long-suffering people in an era of democracy dominated by media oligarchs and land grabbers (alongside the usual suspects in the higher echelons of the state as well as thanas and katcheries in every nook and cranny of society)?
It is not just in Pakistan that the bourgeois democratic order faces a crisis of legitimacy. The rule of corporations, the extension of imperialist and reactionary wars, the proliferation of an increasingly parochial identity politics; all of these are features of democracy in the globalised 21st century.
And just as people the world over are deepening the process of democratisation precisely by questioning actually existing democracy, Pakistanis too must be brave enough to challenge the champions of democracy here at home, so as to ensure that the interests of the otherwise nameless masses are made, and kept, paramount.