Shrinking space for dialogue


Candid Corner


  • Conflict can be resolved by promoting the power of diversity


“Democracy must be built through open societies that share information. When there is information, there is enlightenment. When there is debate, there are solutions. When there is no sharing of power, no rule of law, no accountability, there is abuse, corruption, subjugation and indignation.”

Atifete Jahjaga

For centuries, the concept of dialogue has remained a key instrument to tide over differences and difficulties alike. It has been promoted in its varying dimensions and its potential to address issues has only grown with the induction of a host of divisive forces which have intensified the existing challenges.

The pages of history are strewn with the mention of titanic battles fought, victories savoured and defeats shamed. But, these battles have never left an impact which has not been dimmed, even erased by the piling dust of times. On the contrary, the treasures which are the outcome of multiple levels of dialogue have only increased in importance and relevance with the passage of time. Not only have these provided a true measure of what can be achieved, but also shown the way forward in continuing to tackle divisions and divergences.

At the intra-state level, societies progress and flourish by pursuing a process of dialogue and engagement that encompass all discords and disparities. It is only then that one section of the people is able to understand the sensitivities that another section may nurture and vice versa.

The distaste for diversity that the ruling elite has demonstrated during their stints in power and other manipulative mechanisms adopted have taken the country further away from securing the minimum yardsticks of homogeneity. Marginalising some to the advantage of others has been a favourite pastime

In this process, the principal objective is to bring all contentious subjects under the microscope of discussion for a closer scrutiny to find productive and inclusive ways forward whereby people could work together in attaining desirable common goals as part of a holistic paradigm that would advance the interests of individuals, communities, nations and states.

Unfortunately, through years, Pakistan has ill-advisedly moved away from undertaking such engagements because of undue restrictions imposed on one or another kind of discussion. There have been systematic impediments raised in the way of initiating a variety of such activities. Be it religion, military, judiciary, security, education, law, accountability, et al, there are considerable constraints hindering a dispassionate and substantive debate that would contribute to the evolving of a society able and equipped to undertake a rational appraisal of issues it faces and handle multifaceted challenges it confronts.

These constraints also adversely impact and hinder the prospect of finding credible ways and mechanisms to move beyond them into a realm of homogenous and sustainable growth and development where diversity actually becomes a strength and where varied approaches gel to help the evolving of a cohesive and inclusive narrative.

In the absence of this critical factor, the society has continued to regress with the pace of this slide accelerating with the passage of time. The state, having declared Islam to be the state religion back in 1949, was rendered inherently discriminatory in dealing with its own citizens. This drove a wedge between followers of different beliefs and promoted a culture of recognising them on the basis of their religion and such other identities rather than the power of their diversity.

So, it is a divided society that we deal with – a society that is aware of the debilitating issues it is faced with, but does not have the courage, confidence and the wherewithal to break free of the chains of captivity and move on as a collective force that would be able to alter the given reality and espouse what may be more suited to its needs and goals. It is a society which is perennially in conflict with itself and its numerous constituents.

For it to move forward, it must change. It has to as, otherwise, the pace of deceleration it has been afflicted with would only increase in the coming times till a moment would come when it would simply degenerate to its barest essentials, unable to operate as a cohesive unit. That would be the time for it to break into small, insignificant bits which can be tossed around at the whims of others.

Having nurtured divisions and pursuing lopsided priorities, Pakistan has been robbed of its cohesion to charter a course that will be to the combined benefit of the people and the state. The manner in which it has been governed through decades has encouraged a culture of self-aggrandisement at the cost of the collective interest. Policies have been formulated and laws enacted with virtually no checks in place, thus enabling individuals in positions of authority to manipulate these to achieve their personal objectives. This has created a huge gap between the privileged and the impoverished which has continued to widen with the passage of time.

Simultaneously, institutions have been rendered subservient to the executive authority with incompetent cronies appointed as their heads so that these could be exploited to secure and consolidate the interests of the select ruling elite.

The civil-military divide has been another potent threat imperilling the developmental needs of the country. Lacking integrity and credibility, the ruling elite has repeatedly taken recourse to deceptive and short-sighted manipulations in their bid to gain despotic ascendency. Their failure in this endeavour has further deepened the trust deficit which has hurt Pakistan’s short- and long-term interests, internally and externally.

The depleting quality of human stock is a grave impediment in the context of improving governance. It is a serious dilemma which is rooted in lopsided priorities pursued by succeeding governments in the past. These priorities never included investment in provisioning education, health and empowerment to the people so that they could learn and improve their knowledge, skills and expertise base. Instead, the effort has been to keep them captive so that they could be exploited to the advantage of multiple mafias across divides.

The distaste for diversity that the ruling elite has demonstrated during their stints in power and other manipulative mechanisms adopted have taken the country further away from securing the minimum yardsticks of homogeneity. Marginalising some to the advantage of others has been a favourite pastime.

The essential areas which stand out to be addressed include religiosity with its inordinate and over-arching influence, a distaste for diversity, misuse of state institutions to advance myopic and selfish interests and defining their role in a modern society, the pitfalls of a security-driven state, transparent and uninterrupted accountability as an enshrining component of democracy, fulfilling the provisions of the social contract irrespective of any distinction, job opportunities for people as a matter of undisputed right and depoliticising crime and justice.

An improvement in all these fields can only be brought about by initiating a sustained and substantive dialogue among people and communities hailing from divergent backgrounds, ranks and files so that they could attain a better level of understanding and appreciation of their deprivations and garner the courage to undertake measures for bringing in improvements that would be commensurate with the enshrining principles of equality among all citizens. The initiation of this process will provide the essential drivers which are necessary for the state to recoup its depleted energy and direction. We must not forget that such societies and states which are deprived of credible avenues for catharsis usually take to violent ways and means as has been a growing trend in Pakistan. This needs to be arrested, nay reversed.