Silencing civil society

Demonstration against silencing Sabeen Mahmud (Credit:
Demonstration against silencing
Sabeen Mahmud
Drastic measures followed the tragedy of Army Public School Peshawar. The incident was one of the series of macabre events of our recent history. The scale of barbarity was outrageous and shocking beyond imagination. Yet the equanimity of a society is best judged at such testing times.

Half a year past while the wound still bleeds, it would be pertinent to take a stock of the much touted actions and the promised results. Tragedies are not meant to mourn only; learning lessons and realigning strategies should be the prime outcome. National Plan of Action was the key outcome of the brainstorming by mavericks of the country. The plan enumerated a list of stringent actions to fight extremism.

Citizens were expecting to witness a fundamental shift from the past practices that caused terrorism. Epicentres of extremism and violence are abundantly known to the guardians of peace. Dismantling the citadels of extremism was expected to be an imminent action. However, half year down the road things have been further obfuscated. Proscribed outfits still operate with a reasonable degree of impunity and safe havens of hate stuff are fully intact. It is not just the matter of capacity; it is more because of confused policies that allow the haze to prevail.

Soon after the action plan was launched with great fanfare, soft and relatively innocuous targets such as non-governmental organisations and civil society were targeted. A vilification campaign is on full throttle to prove that civil society organisations comprise foreign agents and their personnel are quislings who are busy round-the-clock in hatching conspiracies against the country. All funded non-governmental organisations are tarred with the same brush rather than isolating exceptions with solid evidences.

Holding civil society accountable and seeking transparency of its business is a legitimate right of the state but one wonders why the similar gusto is not demonstrated in case of those elements who flaunt gruesome fratricide of peaceful compatriots.
Rights-based organisations are demonised because they strive for fundamental rights of citizens, fortification of democracy, emancipation of women and rule of law.
Like every sector, there might be some scoundrel elements within the ranks of non-governmental organisations, yet it would be unfair to bracket all of them as anti-state and stooges of the West. Sifting venal elements require a meticulous screening system and not slander campaigns and a witch-hunt spree. Ironically, the informants’ web becomes hyper efficient when they have to keep a tab on politicians, civil society workers and human rights activists. Human radars become enviably efficient when it comes to document life and activities of peaceful civil society activists. Offices of registered and professionally reporting non-governmental organisations are stalked assiduously. However, stockpiles of lethal weapons in the middle of cities remain unnoticed and the mass-murderers often go unscathed. The state has enough muscle to control law-abiding entities but conspicuously absent while handling law-squashing outfits.

Rights-based organisations and individuals are particularly demonised because they strive for fundamental rights of citizens, fortification of democracy, emancipation of women, rule of law, protection of minorities and combating extremism in all its forms. Since these organisations mobilise people to demand their constitutional rights and hold all institutions accountable through peaceful democratic means, they invite ire of hegemonic and parasitic elements that are deeply embedded in various power centres.

A similar contemporary example is despotic regime of Russia, where a craven parliament capitulated before President Viladimir Putin’s desire to pass a law on “undesirable organisations”. A revered charity of Russia “Dynasty Foundation” has recently been proscribed. The foundation runs research and education projects and had been labeled as “foreign agent”, a metonymy of “enemy of state” in the contemporary Russian parlance.

The term “foreign agent” has recently been coined in Russia to depict any foreign funded organisation engaged in any political activity. Pulverising every sign of dissent is a relic of cold war, which is jealously guarded by Putin for expediency of his power. In a marked resemblance, groups and individuals striving for civil liberties and human rights are stigmatised as western agents in Pakistan. The government machinery avidly sift their accounts and documents but cringes to choke financial conduits of militant groups.

Since civil society has been maligned out-of-proportion, its valuable contribution for citizens has been eclipsed. Apart from its struggle for democracy and rule of law, some of the civil society organisations have produced valuable research in various sectors that works as a compass for the policy architects.

In a country where research produced by formal institutions is often disconnected from public life arena, some of the non-governmental organisations have produced remarkable research work that underlines the complexity and gravity of development deficit. With a yawning deficit of service delivery specially among the marginalised groups and communities living in inaccessible areas, the non-governmental organisations have been shouldering the burden of government agencies.

The prevailing magnitude of human development deficit dwarfs the capacity and resources of public sector and it essentially requires collaborative initiatives with social sector outfits. The country is set to miss critical targets of MDGs and the country is consistently ranked poorly on human development index.

Civil society has enormous potential to assist the government in bridging the social sector gap. Pakistani civil society’s outstanding contribution during the recent natural disasters e.g. earthquake of 2005 and tormenting floods of 2010 and 2011 have been widely appreciated. The role of non-governmental organisations in assuaging miseries of millions of disaster-affectees has been acknowledged by the government and international community.

The Pakistani civil society has been acting as a bulwark against proliferation of extremism. Gallant human rights defenders and civil society activists have laid down their lives while confronting obscurantist elements in the society. In fact the war against terrorism cannot be won without a strategic engagement of civil society. Extremists might have bastions in mountains but extremism has infused every vein of the society that cannot be eradicated only through military measures.

Those in power might despise civil society organisations for their views and opinions but certainly no one can blame civil society groups for involvement in any act of terrorism. On the contrary the civil society remained on the forefront during the struggle for salvaging democracy and restoring rule of law when the country was enveloped by the dark clouds of predatory dictatorships.

The civil society of Pakistan has made remarkable contribution towards civil liberties and a fledgling democracy. Pakistan’s legal framework is amply robust to ensure transparency of civil society affairs. Under the established legal framework no civil society organisation can operate without proper registration and compliance to legal code of the country.

The eligibility to seek foreign funding for development objectives requires civil society organisations to pass through a number of fine sieves. No local or foreign funding can flow into any national civil society account without fulfillment of procedural requirements. There is no dichotomy of opinions that the country is passing through a nerve-breaking turmoil where a deeper scrutiny of matters is need of the hour.
Civil society is fully cognizant of these realities and would endorse every genuine initiative through a consultative process. The current regime of regulation of civil society organisations is not too porous and can serve the purpose through little more vigilant and efficient institutional performance. In fact it does not require any new set of strangulating rules unless intimidation of civil society is the underlying objective. If any loopholes still exist or further fortification of the systems is desirable, a dialogue can be initiated to amicably improvise the rules of business rather than resorting to arm-twisting approach.

The new law under contemplation is aimed more at repression than regulation of national civil society. Steps to stifle civil society will do nothing but a sheer disservice to a juvenile civil society and a fragile democracy in the country.

By attempting to muzzle civil society, an elected regime would be shooting in its own feet. Civil society is a logical extension of any democratic dispensation and no democracy can survive and thrive in absence of a dynamic and vibrant civil society.

Pakistan’s democratic future is contingent upon potency and vibrancy of its civil society. In the contemporary world, civil society is considered a critical pillar of the state. Debilitating civil society would not only plunge society into an autocratic order but would also further besmirch Pakistan’s image in the international community.

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