Change and revolutions (Part – II) – Dr Naazir Mahmood


By nature, people expect things to remain the way they have always been. They defend custom because they think that it is linked to some particular virtues of tradition. They cherish anything transmitted or handed down from the past to the present.

Most of all the elite in society – not intellectual elite but financial elite – project traditions encompassing a body of beliefs, institutions, political and social systems, as sacrosanct. Such elite do not want people to understand that certain beliefs, institutions, and practices have outlived their utility in a changing world. In Pakistan too some beliefs, institutions, and practices survive as tradition, and conservative leaders serve the purpose of these lingering relics which otherwise many forward-looking people could have challenged. At the altar of continuity, the promised changes are sacrificed.

Even if some of these relics have become toxic for society, they are transmitted from one generation to the next. Some relics even become fashionable in a new garb – such as new dramas of yore, new songs of old nationalism, new showpieces in your hand to chant old mantras, and some newfound religiosity that is more pretentious than real. The more such relics endure, the more a slogan of change becomes a hoax. Even capitalism and some industrialization fail to bring about a transformation in society, and people remain alien to new ideas apart from using some new consumer products.

Edmund Burke in his treatise ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ (1790) beautifully describes the idea that society is founded upon a contract of partnership ‘between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’. In countries such as Pakistan, this contract of partnership appears to be only between the elites: the business elite, the civil and military bureaucratic elite, the feudal elite, and to some extent the religious elite. So the living elite keeps a contract of partnership with the dead elite, by keeping custom and tradition alive.

Somehow, common people do not appear in this contract of partnership; on them the elite imposes a contract of subjugation rather than cooperation. The dead and the living elites keep sapping the energies of the people and the resources of the country, taking full advantage of the present and securing their own future. Those yet to be born among the elites are secure for generations, but those yet to be born among the common people have no prospects at all. They are fed on promises of change, but in reality they are led to a conservative and reactionary future with traditions galore.

Some real change takes place when activists, intellectuals, leaders and people themselves challenge the accumulation of long enduring beliefs, institutions, and practices and refuse the continued rule of the dead and living elites. That is one reason why a leader who asks his followers to keep their attachment to the familiar is actually doing a disservice to society. Ideally, a good leader should be focusing on altering and improving existing institutions and practices rather than trying to preserve them while talking about change. Real change takes place when your economic, financial, political and social institutions start functioning better and in consonance with people’s development and welfare needs.

Prime Minister Imran Khan talks about revolutions; so let me refer to one of the pioneers of American Revolution Thomas Paine. In ‘The Rights of Man’ (1791-2) Thomas Paine argued that to revere tradition merely on the grounds that it has long endured is to enslave the present generation to the past, condemning it to accepting the evils of the past as well as its virtues. Paine’s views are instructive for us in that they prevent uncritical respect for the past because such respect violates modern democratic principles. Perhaps, that’s why our prime minister is not keen on continuing with parliamentary democracy.

Each generation has a right to make or remake the world as it sees fit. But to see clearly it should have contemporary lenses rather than the lenses of the past. If a new generation does not have – or does not use – contemporary analytical tools, it ends up rotating in circles, like we have been doing for the past 74 years. While we are at liberty to learn from the past, we should not be forced to relive it. Anyone who asks us to keep reliving the past cannot be sincere in actually changing anything substantial in society.

We cannot assume that our beliefs, institutions and practices have survived for long thanks to their proper working. A machine can survive for long, but then a time comes when we decide to alter the machine or get a new one. The same applies to concepts and ideas, institutions and frameworks for legal, political and social systems. They may have endured for long, but if they are now in a dilapidated condition they need an overhaul or replacement with better ideas, institutions, or frameworks. When they become questionable, you need better answers rather than regurgitating old myths of nationalism, patriotism and spiritualism.

Beliefs, institutions and practices may have survived for very different reasons and one of them is that they were of benefit to the powerful elites we talked about. The same elites foster reverence for history to manufacture their own legitimacy. Remember General Zia who instructed PTV to produce dramas based on Naseem Hijazi’s pseudohistory. And then you wonder why in our society discrimination and intolerance against religious and sectarian groups has increased. Now you have new leaders who promise change and dole out dramas.

Another reason for promising change and eschewing any real transformation is to ensure that the people remain pliant and quiescent and in the thrall of great leaders. You develop personality cults so that people keep waiting for the ‘great leader’ to change society for you, rather than enabling people to enact the desired change. For the purported great leader any rational debate is not welcome nor is any intellectual enquiry. Reverence is the name of the game because it forecloses debate; so, you enact bills that prevent free speech in the name of reverence. Inculcate uncritical and unreasoned acceptance of all national, political and sectarian narratives that you get, and say thank you.

The more you are in the thrall of the past, the more you accept despotism, because that was the practice and tradition. Interestingly, even conservatism can lead to a conservative revolution that promises to destroy the status quo but instead of establishing new, modern, and progressive institutions it establishes a political and social order that is even worse than the status quo. Such reactionary revolutions or coup d etats have taken place in Afghanistan under the Taliban, Egypt, Iran and Thailand. Pakistan has witnessed a similar situation multiple times under both civilian and military rules.

When such reactionary leaders – both civilian and military– assume office they claim to make a dramatic break with the immediate past, but actually they prepare the way for the re-establishment of more ancient principles. Their picture of human history is based on traditionalism which leads to even more corruption and decay. They look at the contemporary realities as signs of aberration that need correction by ancient means and not by up-to-date principles of democracy and fundamental rights. They propose a radical reaction to the new era of enlightenment and intellectual freedom.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.