Where Will Change Come From?

By Anjum Altaf

To want new things in old ways is to consign oneself to despair, frustration, anger and impotence.

That at least was my conclusion after attending an event organized by activists to deliberate on poverty and the rights of citizens. As the meeting progressed, I sensed a shadow descending between the desire and plan for its realization.

The event commenced with a presentation of economic and social data – growth, employment generation, cost of living, income inequality, poverty estimates, access to services, allocations to the social sectors, etc., etc.

There followed a discussion that more or less ignored all the nuances of the presentation save a generalized sense that the situation was terrible and unacceptable. One after another speakers engaged in extended rants excoriating all governments for exploiting people and pillaging the country’s resources for personal ends.

Many heartbreaking incidents were narrated and, as is natural in such gatherings, people felt compelled to top one gruesome anecdote with another.

One could not help concluding there was an enemy whose identity was clearly recognized, whose motivations were thoroughly exposed, and whose callousness was never in doubt. Even those who had served governments joined in the affirmations.

Having thus exhausted themselves, the participants were relieved by the announcement for tea. Refreshed and recharged, they returned with new vigor for the next round.

The objective of the meeting, we were informed, was to prepare a charter of demands on behalf of citizens to be presented to the government. It was here that I felt the first pang of doubt but there was no time to indulge it as the discussion had picked up.

The speakers took turns again and most alluded to human and civil rights in the West as models for what was needed in Pakistan. It was a long list. After a relatively orderly discussion, a period of panic ensued when several participants feared their constituency might be ignored. Distressed cries to add various motley items emanated from nooks and crannies and were duly accommodated.

It was now time for the concluding session when the strategy to obtain the aforementioned rights was to be debated. It was here that my doubts came flooding back.

The talking began anew and speaker after speaker, most of them ardent and veteran trade unionists, indulged in equally emotional rants about what the government should or ought to do for their constituencies. Suggestions covered the entire spectrum of the demands that had been listed in the earlier round – the government should provide education, health, clean water, public transport, unemployment benefits, social security, justice, etc., etc.

It became hard for me to reconcile the pre- and post-tea discourses, the identification of the enemy and the calls to it for amelioration. The first thought that crossed my mind was courtesy of Mir Taqi Mir pointing to the naiveté involved in seeking a cure from the very person who made one ill:

Mir kya saada hain biimaar huuay jis ke sabab
usii attaar ke laundey se dawa letey hain

Literature often provides an anchor for a perspective that the social scientist can then explore for further insights. I reflected on the happenings of the day as I filtered out with the crowd after a crowning cup of tea amidst much bonhomie and backslapping.

My overwhelming sense was one of disorientation. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, my desires emerging from the present and my responses from the past. The world had changed while attitudes seemed lagging behind.

In the case of the event being described, it seemed that the evolution of citizenship rights in the West had a profound influence on the aspirations of the participants. At the same time, the mechanisms for the realization of those aspirations remained deeply rooted in the monarchical traditions of South Asia.

The whole process of which I had been a witness could well have been enacted during the Mughal Empire – subjects frustrated with an uncaring ruler pleading for redress of their grievances, the grievances themselves listed, in no particular order, on a scroll to be presented to the ruler in question. The image was hard to shake of the golden chain of justice with its sixty bells that any subject could pull to summon Emperor Jahangir himself to a hearing.

Notwithstanding our traditions, it was still disconcerting to find hardened trade unionists whose life had been spent mobilizing labor against employers, looking up to and pleading with a sovereign to grant them their rights, the same sovereign they had castigated in such categorical terms just moments earlier.

There seemed scant realization that like Europe we too now exist in a post-monarchical age, one characterized by sovereignty of the people and representative government. And, that in such an age, one looks to citizens, not rulers, for the dynamic of change.

We live in the age of citizens, not subjects, and politics, not pleading, is the instrument for change in our times. The information culled from the presentation of economic and social data needs to be turned not into a charter of demands but a compelling narrative for the voters. And trade unionists and political activists need to busy themselves mobilizing voters around that narrative.

Only when citizens articulate their needs, understand the causes for their remaining unfulfilled,   and use the power of the vote to transform them into effective demand, would the state feel compelled to pay heed to them.

The meeting that had started with a bang had ended with a whimper. The chain of justice is gone while the power of the vote remains unused. Our activists are looking up when they should be looking down.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on September 17, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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14 Responses to “Where Will Change Come From?”

  1. Ishtiaq Ahmed Says:

    I agree. There is a need to mobilize support of the oppressed and denied around a political programme of change and that can best be realized if a political party is identified (or established) that represents such interests. At the moment we are all in the wilderness and it is time to think of a new political movement and party. A party which is secular, democratic and socially responsible – something that would reflect our conditions and challenges and can proffer solutions which are practical and doable.

  2. Asad Shah Says:

    I fully agree with the author. It is not the question of creating a particular political party for the purpose as proposed by Ishtiaq Ahmed. The issue is the need for change in the mindset of the activists for poverty eradication and social justice –including provision of basic services and facilitires — from raising their demands to the government, to interaction with the impacted communities to raise their consciousness so that during successive local, provincial and national elections they vote for those parties or candidates they believe would translate their aspirations into reality. The suggested change in approach is in line with the democratisation of the process of election of those who govern from the earlier colonial era — and its remnants — when sumissions were made to the rulers. As the electorate is enlightened enough to vote for change, the change will take place. This change will also represental the societal change from the so called wadera culture, patwari culture, thana culture, and safarash culture. The activists for change must play the role of social mobilisers for the purpose of this change. The endless sequence of conferences and seminars with repeated litany of the failures of the government and requests to the same government for change is a futile exercise and would take us nowhere.

    Asad Shah

  3. Osama Sajid Says:

    Interesting piece! I agree that it has become our habit to always look towards others for the solutions to our problems. We perceive government as our nanny, responsible for taking care of all our nitty gritty issues. And this is because of electoral process, which compels political parties and leaders to make unreasonably high claims and promises. Party heads portray themselves as ‘father’ as if he would handle all the problems of people if elected to power. We need to abandon this false hope. Even Quran says that “Truly, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11)

  4. Sakuntala Narasimhan Says:

    But will voting guarantee solutions or redress? Not so sure judging from the Indian experience — we boot out one party for apathy, vote another in, and they are exactly the same, and we vote them out — this has been going on for some time now. People like me are asking whether there is another, third alternative. When corruption gets so entrenched, a third alternative is unable to muster resources to bribe voters, and stands no chance, given the pervasive poverty that helps sway voters with clothes, money etc. Removing poverty and illiteracy (or rather, lack of awareness — there is a difference) will help improve matters — but that is precisely why politicians do not want to address poverty or illiteracy….
    Sakuntala

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sakuntala: You are right but one can’t really think of a third way. I believe the electoral process will lead to a slow empowerment of the people that would gradually strip away privileges from the dominant groups. On the other hand, if the democratic process stalls, periods of anarchy would ensue. Indeed, different parts of the country go witness different outcomes in the same time period.

  5. Sheheryar Khan Says:

    With all due respect, Sir Anjum, there is very little in your text that I concur with. Like the forces of good and of evil will remain in tension forever, poverty and richness shall follow a similar course. There are certain things that as a matter of fact, only those who are ‘poor’ will do. The forces of market have devised the pricing mechanism long time ago in conjunction with this line of reasoning. But as humans, the best we can – and must – do is to alleviate poverty as much as possible. So that everyone is able to eat and earn bread and butter with a certain amount of dignity and in a respectable manner. The trade unionists and political activists are, in fact, looking down and not up. That’s why they are able to muster support from all quarters of the labour and the government is compelled to listen to them. To then present your demands to the sovereign , i.e. the employer, is the most democratic and the most plausible way. Revolution for the sake of revolution is futile. Because ultimately, civility will have to be put in order to guide the revolution. In the ‘post-monarchical era’ that we live in, dialogue is the way out to every thing. So salute to the comrades (unionists) that they are keeping order and civility intact and not burning the tyres and the roads and asking for the redresses from the right forum. In light of what I’ve jotted down above, I find no reason of you coalescing your ‘random’ thoughts in a function and knitting them into one piece, which is incoherent and lacks in substance. Perhaps, a stroll in the Academic block or a discussion in your office might be a good abode to explore over this topic. Pardon my words if they are irrationally ferocious.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sheheryar: I see some contradictions in your comment that I would like you to clarify:

      1. You state that like good and evil, poverty and richness would remain in tension forever. Then you go on to say that we should try and alleviate poverty as much as possible. First, if poverty and richness are going to remain in tension forever, what is the point of trying to alleviate poverty? Second, even if they are to remain in tension forever, the stage at which this tension occurs can change a lot. One doesn’t see the kind of poverty in Europe any more that existed at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

      2. You state that the forces of the market have devised the pricing mechanism long time ago. In fact, the market economy is a very recent phenomenon in human history. In South Asia there remains a significant part of the economy that is outside the domain of the market paradigm. In any case, what has the pricing mechanism got to do with the argument?

      3. You mention that the government is compelled to listen to the trade unionists. The first half of the op-ed stated explicitly that the trade unionists were angry precisely because no government had ever bothered to listen to them.

      4. There was no talk of revolution in the article. The argument was that the political process was the only instrument for change in the era of electoral politics. This was contrasted with the earlier era when the instrument was to appeal to the benevolence of the monarch.

  6. Asad Shah Says:

    I am glad that the article has raised a variety of responses, which have enriched the discussion. Over the last several centuries, the human society has seen some change for the better, though a lot remains to be done. I may be an idealist but I strongly believe that the further growth and development of our civilization has to take place towards the evolution of just and caring societies. This brings in the issue of ethics that must become a strong pillar of education, riight from the early childhood, both at home and at the primary school level. This should be nurtured through the later stages of education and societal values. This would need to be complemented by institutional development and structures for delivery of justice, including the concept of growth with equity, where extemes of affluence and poverty are avoided. I think it it is the human consciousness that is evolving in the direction of humanitarianism and internationalism, and the collective good of humanity is at the heart of this movement. It is true that the strong and powerful will not give up their influence voluntarily. However, with empowerment of the masses and their organization, as proposed, for activists to mobilize the communities for their rights, the situation should improve progressively. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the future of humankind to which we all must contribute.

    Asad Shah

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Asad: Unfortunately, the trend seems to be in the reverse direction. Community values are being eroded and localized violence is increasing. The core of what used to be considered a good education is shrinking. Perhaps an economic system in which the only things that count are getting rich and accumulating assets doesn’t help. If the worth of an individual is not measured by the stock of wisdom but the square footage of the house, the proportion of the greedy and the foolish in society would increase. Is that not what we are seeing in our times?

  7. Sheheryar Khan Says:

    To say that I’m indelibly impressed by your patience and benevolence is an understatement. That being said, let me resort to some clarifications.

    1. I still maintain that the forces of poverty and richness will compete with each other till eternity. But this fact should not mitigate our energy to fight poverty. Everyone should be able to earn in a dignified manner. My example can be analogous to notions of a foolish rural farmer who does not want to grow more crops and is satisfied with the present commodity as God’s will. That’s obviously a poor course of way. So, one has to do much as he can do in his capacity to alleviate poverty. I agree that the Industrial Revolution brought about massive change in Europe. But it is to be noted that it has got to do more with technological advancement and better standard of living than poverty itself. So to say, one would find many folks using techy gadgets in both developing and developed countries, who are struggling to make their ends meet.

    2. I was alluding to the evolution of Adam Smith’s thoughts. It was to corroborate and supplement my stance on poverty.

    3. You wrote:

    Notwithstanding our traditions, it was still disconcerting to find hardened trade unionists whose life had been spent mobilizing labor against employers, looking up to and pleading with a sovereign to grant them their rights, the same sovereign they had castigated in such categorical terms just moments earlier.

    At a later point, you wrote:

    We live in the age of citizens, not subjects, and politics, not pleading, is the instrument for change in our times. The information culled from the presentation of economic and social data needs to be turned not into a charter of demands but a compelling narrative for the voters. And trade unionists and political activists need to busy themselves mobilizing voters around that narrative.

    A bit contradictory? So, another excerpt from this very article described my feelings as well:

    My overwhelming sense was one of disorientation. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, my desires emerging from the present and my responses from the past. The world had changed while attitudes seemed lagging behind.

    4. My point is that even in today’s world, the unionists, after rallying labour support behind their backs, have to approach the government for their redresses. So the contrast is a tad more misplaced. If they don’t do this and resort to tyre burning which they usually encourage, things go into a state of disorganization and disarray. Hence, the reference to the futility of revolution for the sake of revolution (revolution not precisely in its literal sense).

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Sheheryar: I would like to push these points further:

      1. Poverty is a relative concept. The poor in Finland are many times better off than the poor in Pakistan – in absolute terms poverty has been eliminated in many countries. What you are referring to is income inequality which is a different matter conceptually. So, the question remains – what has to be done to eliminate absolute poverty in Pakistan? The last thing we should be doing is blaming the poor for their poverty. As social scientists we have to understand the constraints that might be preventing the farmer from growing more crops rather than jumping to the conclusion that he is foolish. Also, whether one needs recourse to technology or anything else to eliminate poverty is a matter of strategy.

      2. I am not sure how Adam Smith’s thoughts corroborate your stance on poverty. Could you refer to the specific thought you have in mind.

      3. I don’t see the contradiction. My point is that we are living in the age of representative governments not monarchies. Therefore the vehicle for change ought to be via the ballot box not appealing to the benevolence of rulers. That contributed to the sense of disorientation – that the world had changed but behavior of activists had remained rooted in the era of monarchies.

      4. I agree, but the question is how to approach the government – through the political process by representing the demands of the electorate and changing governments if the incumbent one is not responsive or by appealing to its benevolence to be nice. Moving away from the latter does not mean burning tyres – it means resorting to the legitimate practices of electoral politics. If people are pushed to burning tyres, it means that the electoral process has also failed. That would be a much more serious situation.

  8. Anil Kala Says:

    I think in a democracy people generally know what each party/candidate stands for yet they vote for caste or similar such affiliation. The reason I believe is that they are overwhelmed by the shear number of voters therefore insignificance of their vote. As a consequence they vote for caste or similar such affiliation which provides for immediate gratification.

    In the unusual times they sense a surging wave in favor of change which they always wanted therefore abandon caste/other affiliation and go along the wave. Until a party attains critical mass they are unlikely to make any dent with the voters. The change comes when a movement gathers critical mass.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anil: The second part of your argument is plausible but the first can be contended. If a voter feels his/her vote is insignificant, the rational response should be to not vote. What is seen in rural India at least is more on the lines of identity voting. People want sufficiently enough for their preferred candidate to win to go to the trouble of voting for him/her. Identity voting in the US was explained some time back by Professor Stanley Fish: https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/2008/02/23/the-politics-of-identity/

  9. Maryam Says:

    This is a very important point, where will change come from? It turns out that change does not have much to do with education, economic status and sometimes even exposure. You can educate a person, give them jobs, send them abroad to live and study, but some people will still look down upon the poor, consider their women unequal and discriminate against certain groups.

    One could be living in a village and still be more open minded than someone living in the city (though they may never show it because of social conformity). You are either someone who looks outside the box, or you aren’t.

    Yet through out history people have indeed changed. People who were ready to take each other’s lives became as close as brothers. People who brutally killed others, left their past behind and moved forward. So here’s another question, how do you change the mindset of people? How do you change the mentality of a person?

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