by Javed Jabbar

Does the Quetta carnage of August 8, 2016 symbolize how a few crazed terrorists probably goaded by agencies of congenitally hostile countries can pulverize both people and state power?  The search for a credible answer continues as we turn to the nature of people’s power.

On the 69th anniversary of the country’s emergence , it may be useful to reflect on aspects of how and whether the power of the people is always  a potent factor  in the formation and evolution of nations and states. And whether and how  such power features in the context of Pakistan.

The reaction of many people in Turkey to the abortive  military coup in mid-July 2016 is the most recent instance of the apparent strength of citizens to affect the direction of a state at a critical juncture.  Large numbers  have expressed support in favor of democracy and all political parties condemned the attempted disruption . But the failed coup raises several questions about its credibility and actual motives , about its almost strangely deliberate incompetence and uncordinated actions. One question remains — was this a coup designed to fail yet  also crafted to help achieve certain objectives ?  The jury is still out . One is unable to cite this instance as an unqualified expression of people’s power .

Duality of Power

clip_3“The power of the people” is a straightforward phrase which  conveys exactly what it says. But does it?

For the people can be both benevolent as well as malevolent, united and divided, persevering and  capricious. A small section of the people can claim to act on behalf of the larger part, sometimes called the “silent majority “. Despite receiving over 54 million votes for her directly elected Presidency of Brazil , Dilma Rouseff  is impeached by a few hundred intensely partisan legislators, many of whom face serious corruption charges.

Equally, when people’s power is fiercely sustained on the street, legitimately elected governments as in Thailand and elsewhere can be ousted, with or without the military’s support.

In  certain electoral systems, particularly those that use the absurd-yet-popular,  first-past-the-post voting principles — in which a candidate getting less votes than all the other candidates combined and only a small percentage of the total registered votes becomes the sole representative of all — a limited number of people become spokespersons for the vast majority.

And even in conditions where violence, and not the vote, is the decisive instrument, one part of the people can say  they are the true representatives of  all the people. An example  next door is the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Other formative factors

It is justifiably assumed that a nation-state cannot be created without the will and consent of the people who comprise its citizenry.  Yet there have been other elements in history which have  stimulated  the formation of states. Such other elements include arbitrary territorial demarcations imposed by departing colonial powers (e.g. Ghana , others); bilateral agreements between two or more colonial powers to carve up areas for post-colonial convenience (the 1916 Sykes-Picot Franco-British agreement on the Middle East including the demarcation of Jordan , Iraq, etc); post-war settlements between allies or former adversaries to divide territory (eg. West and East Germany after World War II); extraordinary liberators such as Simon Bolivar in Latin America who defeated  his own Spanish ancestors’ armies and is credited for the creation of Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.

People’s power has been most visible and decisive in prolonged armed struggle by large or small numbers conducting campaigns to expel colonial occupiers and their local partners. The phenomenal will of the Vietnamese people against French, American and Chinese dominance is in a class by itself. The Long March (1934-35 and the campaign for over a decade with gradually increasing popular support led by Mao Tse Tung succeeded in achieving three goals: victory over the Kuomintang forces of Chiang Kai Shek,  defeat of the occupying Japanese, and the assumption of power by the Communist Party in 1949. In South Africa , both the guerilla tactics of the African National Congress and the solitary imprisonment of Nelson Mandela for 24 years received mass black support to ultimately cause the collapse of apartheid — but with descendants of the original white Dutch colonials becoming assimilated into a new role, and not being physically removed from the territory.

Small numbers, big changes

Relatively small numbers of individuals passionately committed to certain causes can also act in the name of the people and secure power . Though the Bolsheviks in Russia tapped into widespread discontent against the Tsar , they did not have hundreds of thousands of people in active engagement when they overthrew the ruling family and introduced a radical new order.

When a few young Colonels in the Egyptian Army led by Gamal Nasser dismissed King Farouk , the people’s sentiments were expressed post-facto , and not prior to the end of monarchy.

Similarly, the Young Turks led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha in Turkey had a sharply defined and shared mission to abolish the Caliphate , endorsed as a welcome fait accompli by the people who had grown disillusioned by the erosion of Ottoman credibility.

People vs. people

clip_2In some respects, the term ” the people ” is a misleadingly singularist phrase.  Because “the people” are often  a composite of multiple “peoples”.

White Europeans invaded North, Central and South America,  the Caribbean islands and Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, in numbers that grew into hundreds of thousands over about four centuries.

There then  arose the tragic spectacle of the original people of the Americas —- the multitude of tribes of the  ” Red ” Indians Arawaks,  Inuits, Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and their descendants  — becoming decimated by germs and infections brought from Europe, mow down by guns, greed and steel, robbed of their historic lands and their wealth by a new set of ” people ” who used brute power to displace another set of ” people “. Hundreds of thousands of black slaves were shipped from Africa across the Atlantic to also become new parts of ” the people ” of the Americas.

We then had one set of white people — the American settlers — waging war against another set of white people — the British— with support from yet another set of white people — the French –to gain independence  from Britain.

In marked contrast, when the Mughals came from Central Asia to South Asia, the initial  conquerors and their forces steadily ceded power over centuries to become  part of the indigenous  people of the subcontinent who were not mass-murdered or enslaved and who remained in place —  and now hold sway.

Violent internal conflicts

The people of China continue to accept a single-party political Communism in 2016. Economic Communism was  abandoned in 1978. But  exactly fifty years ago, in 1966 , in another Asian country and the world’s largest Muslim nation, there were  horrendous massacres of Communists in Indonesia when General Suharto neutralized President Sukarno and launched a virtual extermination of  the Communist Party. Numerous people killed were falsely accused of being Communists. The enormity of the bloodshed has never been officially acknowledged. With the support of the Armed Forces — also comprising parts of the people– Suharto ruled for 31 years. Some times terrible tragedies occur when the power of the people is turned against the people themselves , be it in Indonesia or in the Cultural Revolution in China which  ended in 1976.

Like revolutions which consume some of their own architects (e.g. Leon Trotsky in Russia), the power of the people can also produce  undesirable consequences. Launched with the cry of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity ” to end the decadent  monarchy , the French revolution eventually produced Napoleon Bonaparte.  Notwithstanding his individual qualities and some reforms , he proceeded to inequitably crown himself as the new royalty and conducted  a disastrous invasion of Russia . For the record : it took  about 150 years after the equality promised by the French revolution for women to be given the right to vote  for the first time in 1944. People’s power may end some grave wrongs but it can also  create serious  new dangers and postpone the abolition of injustices.

clip_17-2Indian-occupied Kashmir and Israeli-occupied Palestine  embody valiant sagas of people’s power that remain unrealized because they are pitched against unfairly formidable odds. Regardless of the impasses, these two regions have become role models for sustained people’s power.

People’s movement for Pakistan

In securing Independence for Pakistan, the power of the people expressed itself at several levels and in different forms.

Commencing hundreds of years earlier with the advent of Islam in South Asia, a sense of separate identity steadily accumulated in the persona and the psyche of Muslims in this region. It crystallized simultaneously and progressively into two distinct versions of self-empowerment. One version aspired for one or more entirely separate , independent nation-states .  While asserting its distinctiveness, the other version was willing to remain in a newly-independent , predominantly non-Muslim India.

So enduring and powerful  is this sense of separate Muslim identity that, even after the disintegration of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh , the Muslims of Bangladesh show no desire whatsoever to merge with West Bengal or to diminish their Muslim identity — despite the avowed  preference of the presently ruling Awami League  for secularism.

During the four decades between the establishment of the Muslim League in 1906 and the birth of Pakistan in 1947, those Muslim people for whom  a  separate political identity had become  a reflection  of their aspirations for  power attended rallies and meetings in growing numbers. The climax came with the election results of 1946 in which the Muslim League received an overwhelming mandate . Despite the limited basis of adult franchise — literacy, property ownership , driving licenses etc — Muslims , with all the diversity of languages, ethnicities , sects et al , rendered  a powerful verdict that neither the Congress Party nor the British could downplay.

Peace and pieces

With only  some unfortunate instances of pre-1947  violence, the people’s struggle for Pakistan was remarkably peaceful and disciplined , including resolutions by parties and legislatures (Sindh, 1938), referendums in Sylhet and NWFP .

The violence and deaths unleashed in Calcutta on Direct Action Day in 1946, and in communal clashes elsewhere were mainly caused by misjudgments, ineffective enforcement of order, unexpected incitements to extremism by some leaders. They were  not the outcome of  cold-blooded plans to wreak havoc as has been the case in some other freedom struggles.

Both Quaid-i-Azam and Mahatma Gandhi personified the ideals of non-violence. Ironically it is only the latter who is recognized worldwide as the apostle of non-violence while his Pakistani counter-part is either misrepresented or ignored.

As a  perverse counter-point to the largely peaceful freedom struggle, a terrible holocaust  occurred — mainly in Punjab — in the weeks just before, but mostly  just after, the establishment of the two new states. This was an abhorrent expression of the capacity of people to become panicked, hate-filled mobs that changed from being close  neighbors into instant killers. Examples of hundreds who retained their sanity and humanity were darkened by hundreds of others who ran amok. People’s power at its best, and worst.

Due to the  grossly misconceived , mis-timed , mismanaged Partition plan and the abject failure of the British-controlled administration, about one million innocent humans perished and about eight to ten million others went through harrowing experiences during migration. That suffering was soothed by the power of the  compassion and hospitality with which the inhabitants of the new country’s provinces  welcomed the migrants.

Independent Pakistan has witnessed four military interventions.  In varying ways, each of them disrupted the evolution of the application of people’s power in a peaceful way.  Two of the four interventions were catastrophic.  General Yahya Khan’s responsibility for presiding over the break-up in 1971 of the original Pakistan.  General Zia ul Haq’s regressive, excessively self-preserving reign of eleven years, whose dark shadows have  distorted aspects of  society for well over three decades.

Military dictatorships are least desirable. But the inconvenient truth is also that in the other two military interventions, despite their own flaws , the rights — and therefore, the potential power — of sections of the people were given unprecedented recognition.

There was  the Family Laws Ordinance in Ayub Khan’s tenure. Then came the substantially increased reserved seats for women in all Legislatures and the opening of electronic media to private ownership as two of several abiding legacies of the Musharraf period that have been retained by civilian governments.

Sometimes, by design or inadvertence, military governments can represent the power — or the will —  of the people more accurately than civil, elected governments.

In 1971, the power of most of the people of East Pakistan— with decisive support from India— overcame the power of West Pakistan whose forces struggled to preserve the original state with severe disadvantages of befogged leadership, long distances , encirclement, blockade, local alienation, and far less numbers.  Though the conventional narrative espouses this instance as an apt example of the triumph of people’s power,  there were elements other than people’s power alone which resulted in the secession of East Pakistan. Suffice it to say at this time that 1971 does represent a cathartic point — for the expression of people’s power, real, or as perceived.

Elusive, evolving

Intermittently and erratically in the past 44 years since 1971, the power of the people has been articulated in fits and starts.

The economic and social structure segregates power by class , institution and region. Through political parties , election results , strikes, public meetings,   long marches, dharnas, the 2007 lawyers’ movement, airing grievances in media, sections of the people continue to press for change. The capacity of democratic institutions to facilitate orderly response to crises requires major reforms, as in other parts of the world.

People’s power is neutered at the grass-roots level by disempowered Local Bodies because  those elected to the tree-tops fear actual devolution of power.

Some changes  do occur.  In other respects, the status quo continues. The primitive electoral system in which half the people never vote (instead of compulsory voting,  etc.) enables dynastic or suppressive elites to be re-elected. By some indicators the power of the armed forces today in 2016 to shape crucial aspects of internal and external policy seems greater than the power of the the people’s elected representatives.  Whether this is due to the inability of the elected government to judiciously use people’s power or whether it is  the  intrusion of the military  deserves  separate analysis.

As a  measurable factor of political change, the power of the people in 1947 to help create Pakistan was transformative and explicit.

In 2016 it remains evident, yet  elusive and ambivalent.

In these four decades, the people’s strength has synthesized a distinct sense of abiding affinity which can be called Pakistaniyat. As our institutions evolve to become optimally participative with improved — but not paralyzing — checks and balances on authority, the relationship between the people and the application of power is bound to become more balanced and stable.


The writer is a former Senator and Federal Minister; Member, Senate Forum for Policy Research; www.javedjabbar.com