A New Model of Civil Society-Establishment Engagement By Foqia Sadiq Khan


Any student of Pakistan’s history will tell you that resistance offered to the transgressions of the establishment by the civil society, political parties, thinkers and writers was much more direct in Pakistan in its nature during the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and also 1980s. However, from 1990s onwards, a new model of covert cooperation of the civil society-establishment has emerged that is largely driven by both coercion and cooption. It has its pros and cons and we will analyze them.

In the earlier decades of Pakistan when the regional political parties, the likes of dynamic progressives Tariq Ali and Faiz Ahmad Faiz represented the civil society, the confrontation was direct and it was also managed in no-holds barred manner. Since the 1990s, after the massive expansion of the intelligence wing of the establishment due to the Afghan Jihad and huge financial, technical, and military support from the US and the West; Pakistani establishment has started to covertly direct the state of affairs in the civic space.

The days of direct confrontation between the progressive sections of society and establishment were replaced by the covert engagement between the two both through coercion and cooption. Political economist Akbar Zaidi has written in detail how the NGO sector and the liberal intelligentsia in 1999 onwards so readily went hands in gloves with the military dictator Musharraf. He was perceived to be a “lifestyle liberal”. The NGO sector did not take into account that Musharraf had displaced a democratically elected government and just latched on to the opportunity to work together with a military dictator.

The current establishment in Pakistan is after the air of “authenticity” and “objectivity” to protect its institutional interests and it goes to great lengths to plan to achieve them. I met a top law-enforcement serving official for coffee through the links of the head of my workplace, a think-tank, in the fall of 2011 and this top official told me to write a few pro-establishment newspaper articles and mix them up with a few critical of establishment articles and this way, I would appear “authentic” and “objective”. That is the end product establishment is looking for. Of course, I did not agree to write such “mix” of articles to achieve the so-called “objectivity”.

Even in the US and other developed countries, their establishment might be ruling the roost and controlling its civil society and expats in other countries through such covert mechanisms

There are various layers of the establishment’s strategy: one arm of public opinion makers is openly pro-establishment and endorses and praises everything that the establishment does in the country and that is the direct approach. However, the establishment has also cultivated some existing or new civil society organisations, activists, lawyers, judges, academics, researchers, journalists and other opinion makers to publicly oppose the establishment, so that when the real interests of the establishment are to be served, those so-called “authentic” and “critical of army” can do the establishment’s bidding.

So mind you. Just because some activist, journalist, academic, lawyer, judge or politician appears critical of the establishment in the public does not mean that he or she is truly independent. It might be part of the posturing to build a public image of the opinion maker or politician, so that when the establishment really needs endorsement, these so-called “critical” voices can be relied upon and that would make the whole process look “objective”.

A careful plan is used to achieve this so-called “authenticity; NAB is used to hold hearings against those planted “authentic” opinion makers, court cases are initiated against them so that the government can prove that it was genuinely against them. Sometimes such individuals are sacked from jobs (government or otherwise) and in other cases such other elaborate ways and means are used to paint the story that they are really the army’s adversaries while they are actually not. The point is to construct an image of civil society organisations, activists, lawyers, judges, academics, researchers, journalists that they are critical of the establishment while the necessary data and input against the establishment might have been provided by the establishment itself and certainly a clearance given to criticize it.

It is true that the NGO sector in Pakistan is quite corrupt or at least large parts of the NGO sector lack proper scrutiny and accountability. The Executive Director (ED) of a NGO typically recommends names for the Board of Directors (BoD) and that BoD in turn selects the ED or validates his/her extension. It is like you scratch my back and I scratch yours. There are many NGOs that have personalized governance with one person heading the top office for years with no change in the leadership. It is also possibly true that many opinion makers and NGOs benefit materially due to this covert engagement with the establishment. However, not everyone is for sale and these so-called “authentic” civil society organisations, activists, lawyers, judges, academics, researchers, journalists might simply toe the establishment line covertly under coercion to save their and their families’ lives. The truly authentic voices that do not compromise are eliminated through hook or crook like Sabeen Mahmud of T2F.

These are the insights I have gathered after having watched the civil society in Pakistan since 1997. Personally for me, I am very lucky to have a truly authentic intellectual and loving and caring husband. However, I do not trust at all any of my colleagues I worked with in the past in a policy think-tank, a NGO, and those who worked with me in consulting assignments. I do not trust either my colleagues or friends (both in Pakistan and abroad) or relatives simply because the establishment is so powerful in Pakistan that it can make anyone work against you due to its power of coercion and cooption.

It is unlikely that this new model of new civil society-establishment is only exclusive to Pakistan. It is certainly more blatant and in your face in Pakistan but it is probably practiced in other developed and developing countries of the world as well. The BJP fascism in India is a case in point. It might be happening in India even before the BJP. Even in the US and other developed countries, their establishment might be ruling the roost and controlling its civil society and expats in other countries through such covert mechanisms. The Pakistani diaspora abroad is also influenced similarly.

This new model of civil society-establishment engagement has its plus points as well. It avoids direct confrontation between the two and there is much more indirect and covert collaboration and engagement. This new model might cut transaction costs of more open confrontation and conflict and promote durable cooperation.

There are also some genuinely authentic intellectual lives that have lived to the fullest in Pakistan such as that of historian Dr Mubarak Ali who could not hold his jobs for too long. Therefore, one must learn lessons from such lives well spent. There are also genuine struggles worth supporting for such as those of the Lady Health Workers and Okara peasants for their rights. There is also immense need to read the social science literature, understand the state and society and widely disseminate it through your writings. It tremendously helps to contribute to a better understanding of society. Therefore, there is always the space to live a truly authentic life and work for the betterment of society and country. There is also the need to think about the long-term impact of this new civil society-establishment engagement model on the development and stability of the country.