Democratic pluralism and Pakistan

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 08.01.14

Democratic pluralism is a concept that is the antithesis of the nation state concept. The
latter identifies the state with one homogeneous nation. In contrast, democratic pluralism
appreciates heterogeneity in all respects, ranging from race, ethnicity, language, culture, to
religion and sect. Furthermore, democratic pluralism rejects the idea that the state should
represent a distinct racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious or sectarian community.

Around the world, the nation state concept flopped in the 1940s with the start of the Second
World War. Interestingly, Pakistan, which took birth after the war, tried to replicate the idea
of the nation state on the basis of religion, especially when the world was abandoning the
nation state concept and adopting democratic pluralism. In Pakistan, the spell continued till
the end of the Cold War in 1989. There are two main sources of democratic pluralism in
Pakistan: first, globalisation, and, second, modernity. However, education, the media and
consumerism are three main factors that reinforce the effects of both globalisation and
modernity.

No doubt, certain sections of Pakistani society were in interaction with western societies
both before partition and after it, yet the idea of democratic pluralism was not appreciated
properly. The post-1989 world stood for democracy, capitalism, human rights and liberty,
essentially under the umbrella of democratic pluralism. The message of democratic
pluralism was conveyed to Pakistani society through the agents of globalisation, such as
the means of transportation and the communication network after 1989. In this way, post-
1989 Pakistan bore the thrust of democratic pluralism through the forces of globalisation.
The main effect of globalisation is that people become aware of divergent values, ethics,
cultures and societies. The next effect is that people start comparing their values, ethics
and cultures with the newly introduced ones. The subsequent effect is that people start
availing themselves of the opportunity of choice, of accepting one value and rejecting
another. The same treatment is meted out to ethics and cultures. Thinking in this way
paves the way for democratic pluralism entering society.

Some people think that globalisation led to the conflict between the various ideologies of
the world and that conflict caused the gory incident of 9/11. It is quite interesting to notice
that when the world (in the aftermath of 9/11) was grappling with the fear of ideological war
between Islam and the west, Pakistan was embracing modernity. In the post-9/11 phase,
Pakistan has been bombarded with western material culture. From laptops to cars, from
cellular phones to cosmetics, from medicine to fruit juice and from biscuits to designer suits,
everything western has been imported for usage. The main engine of this import is not only
the economic policies of the government to open up Pakistan’s economy but also the inflow
of the money of expatriate Pakistanis. The culture of consumerism, an attendant, has also
been reinforcing modernity in Pakistan.

At its core, Pakistani society is still traditional — here traditional means that it likes
homogeneity, which is an enemy of pluralism. However, democratic pluralism is also
claiming its space, especially in the urban areas. As the material culture is bound to bring
along immaterial culture, which can affect the composition of local culture, the same thing
has been happening in the case of Pakistan. Urban cities are getting modernised, rather
westernised. The youth is adopting a modern lifestyle or the western lifestyle.

Post-9/11 Pakistan has witnessed growth in the private education sector, which has been
expanded to embrace a number of colleges and universities of all hues across the country.
Post-9/11 Pakistan has also witnessed the emergence of the private electronic media,
which has expanded its domain and discusses all topics except a few. Post-9/11 Pakistan
has also witnessed right-wing political and religious parties ganging up to thwart the entry of
modernity in Pakistan but surrendering electoral space finally to centre-right and centre-left
political parties. Post-9/11 Pakistan has witnessed an authoritarian political thought
attaining an upward spike on the popularity graph by 2007 but then collapsing afterwards.
Post-9/11 Pakistan has witnessed the emergence and proliferation of social media, which is
increasingly affecting all domains of life. Taking the effects of all these happenings
together, it can be said that the idea of democratic pluralism is getting stronger in Pakistan.
People are now basking in the glory of political liberty.

It is natural that those actors come into play who are averse to change. Hence, there has
emerged a reactionary school of thought abhorring anything associated with the west, be it
democracy or the constitution. Some of them call themselves the Taliban while some of
them call themselves sectarian militants. Interestingly, there has appeared a contrast in
society. On the one hand, the forces of religious bigotry are in full swing while on the other
hand, the forces of modernity are getting stronger. Similarly, on the one hand, ethnic and
linguistic awareness in people has increased while on the other hand, democracy has
become stronger to sweep across ethnic and linguistic domains.

Immediately after 9/11, there was a streak of reactionary Muslims existing in Pakistani
society. Though the streak is persisting, the breadth of that streak has been shrinking and
it is because people are becoming aware of the kind of world they are living in. Many
people now realise that mere reliance on faith to solve worldly problems is no solution.
Mechanical problems demand mechanical solutions while electrical problems demand
electrical solutions and not spiritual solutions. Many people have also realised that, not
conflicts, but negotiations are the solutions for even long standing national and
international disputes. That is a good omen for the physical and political health of Pakistan.

The overall trend shows that instead of suppressing democratic pluralism either in the
name of Islam or nationalism, Pakistani society has started respecting it. Though in some
areas ethnic heterogeneity is more palpable and nagging because of the economic factor,
other areas are now settling with democratic pluralism, considering it a way of life and an
undeniable reality.

Back to columns in 2014