Last night during a run I came upon a street in Karachi’s PECHS area that had barriers and police guards at both ends. I slowed to a walk and when I came near the barrier a policeman stopped me and asked me my business. I took out my headphones and told him that I was enjoying the cool weather. He told me to enjoy it elsewhere as this street was barred. I asked him why is it barred? It’s a public throughfare and I am a citizen whose taxes pay for the paving of the street and for the city police’s salary. Is it a special zone demarcated as such by the government? Then came the intimidation and tough guy routine. Where do you live? Where do you work? What is your name? The whole shebang. When I gave my answers, he had no choice but to let me pass. I got back to humming Mohammad Rafi and sauntered off.
This is a usual routine in Karachi. Guards ask me not to park at footpaths because the home’s owner or shop’s owner “owns that pavement.” I hand back trash to people who litter. I refuse to give way to overweening black SUVs. I do many other things because not doing means surrendering the rights accorded to a citizen. I do many things because if I don’t do them, it reinforces the idea that I live in a lawless land that has been colonized by the elites. I do many things because I refuse to accept a class-based apartheid. I do many things because I refuse to cede my rights and to preserve my sense of identity as a citizen of a functioning state.
I also do this because I can. I fully recognize my privilege and strongly believe that a country works top-down. The idea of one-man-one-vote is an illusion, we are not all the same and those who have the privilege should do more to improve society. Expecting a person without voice, access, means or resources to change things is a misnomer. Throughout history, it has largely been the privileged and the elite who have changed societies. Religion has had the biggest impact on societies and its prominent names were men of position. Ram and Arjun were princes. Moses was the Pharaoh’s nephew. Siddhartha was a king’s son. Jesus Christ was from the line of David, a mighty king. Prophet Mohammad (PHUB) was from the House of Hashemite whose family had the custody of the Kaaba.
On the temporal side, the French Revolution was started by the bourgeoisie of the Third State and the American Revolution was led by landed gentry. Anthony Ashley Cooper who led social reforms in UK in the 19th century was an earl. Even Communism which has rule of the labor class at its core is no exception. Karl Marx came from a comfortable background and attended university of Bonn and Berlin, Mao was a prosperous farmer’s son and worked as a librarian while Lenin was from an upper-class family who was admitted in the prestigious Kazan Imperial University. The independence movement of India was led by lawyers from UK’s Lincoln’s Inn and Inner Temple, one of which went to Harrow and Cambridge. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the first African Americans to get a doctorate degree. Nelson Mandela was from royal African blood. And the recently departed and much-lamented Desmond Tutu was a teacher and ordained Bishop.
The underlying point is that societal changes are led by those who have the voice, authority, and means to go against the status quo and challenge those who need to be challenged. The problem with Pakistan is that its elites have reneged this social contract and abandoned their role as responsible citizens. No electricity? Get a generator or better yet, use solar and go off the grid. No gas? Get a cylinder or electric cooker. No security? Build high walls, put up barriers, get bullet proof vehicle and hire security guards. No water? Get a sucker pump and tanker. No decent public healthcare? Go to a private hospital. No decent public education? Go to a private school. Trouble getting a travelling visa? Get another passport.
The country’s elite have abandoned the system and without their involvement, voice, and pressure the state has no reason to improve anything. The state promises much in its constitution but is either incompetent, unconcerned, or exploitative. Often it is all three. Oh, sure the politicians will say a few things to the masses and engage in tokenism but since the elite are complacent, they can breathe easy. After all, do we really expect a shop owner or a factory worker to hold a public official’s feet to the fire? They will be lucky if they can work up three square meals a day for their family and cannot be expected to take on the mighty powers-that-be.
While the country’s leadership and its poor institutions are the cause of low development, the apathy and indifference of the elite are equally responsible. There are notable exceptions. Certain business families such as the Habibs, Adamjees, Tabbas and others have demonstrated the utility of private philanthropy. Many institutions have benefited from their largess.
However, it is not the business elite that are being addressed here. Much has been written about elite capture and the top 1% controlling and owning a hugely disproportionate amount of the country’s resources. No, I am referring to the degree holding salariat, the English speaking educated class that drives the economy. The middle and upper class or Pakistan’s Third Estate. The educated privileged class, and I count myself in that, have largely disappointed.
The most precious resource of a state is committed citizens who recognize their duty and fulfil it. The citizens of ancient Rome understood this well. Legend says that in 362 BC, after an earthquake a deep pit suddenly opened in the Roman Forum. Many said it led to hell and the despairing Romans attempted to fill but it was in vain. In desperation they consulted an augur who responded that the gods demanded the most precious possession of Rome. The Roman authorities could not agree what was more precious: gold, salt, the emperor or even a Vestal Virgin. However, a young man named Marcus Curtius came forth and boldly said that courageous spirit of a Roman citizen was the empire’s most precious possessions. Resplendent in finery he leapt into the chasm which closed over him. The story may be apocryphal, but it served to inspire generations of Roman citizens who prized the rights of their citizenship. Small wonder that the Roman Empire is the longest enduring state in history and lasted for over a thousand years.
Pakistan’s privileged citizens need a similar courageous spirit. Waiting for a messiah is worse than fiddling on a sinking ship. Drawing discussions, pontificating on social media, and cursing the system changes nothing. In fact, social media and drawing room activism suck out the oxygen from burning issues and give a false sense of accomplishment which compromises the outcome. Real change comes from methodically tackling the issue and grinding out results. Theodore Roosevelt had it right when he said, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” Pakistan’s privileged class has been too ready to give up their rights and too quiescent in the face of prevalent issues because they are not directly affected by them. They should remember the saying that those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
When the privileged class criticizes the “system” they forget that they are part of it. In fact, given their power and reach they are the system. Change will only happen when they want it and work for it. As a wise stockbroker once said to me, “TV anchors endlessly talk about the mafia. What mafia mere bhai? We are the mafia”.