Norms, values and democrcay

Dr Akmal Hussain,
Professor Economics at BNU Lahore

Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th,  2011

Douglass C North, the Nobel Prize winner, who pioneered the New Institutional Economics, defines an institution as a set of formal rules and informal norms, which together with their enforcement mechanisms structure human interaction. Research on the subject over the last two decades, shows that the formal rules of a democratic institutional structure can be actualised in practice only when they are underpinned by norms and values conducive to its functioning.

Historically, until 2007, successive military regimes in Pakistan were able to blatantly violate the constitution because the underlying democratic norms had not sufficiently permeated popular consciousness to constitute a credible threat to military dictatorship. In this sense, the citizens’ movement led by the lawyers in 2007, aimed at restoring the judiciary and constitutional rule, was a watershed moment in Pakistan’s history. Subsequently Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Sahiba, sacrificed her life to express the will of the people for democracy. Thus, a democratic consciousness was manifested to give meaning and strength to the formal rules of the constitution.

The urge for an equitable and representative polity goes back to ancient times, in the area which today constitutes Pakistan. According to the Indian historian Romila Thapar, the earliest republics were formed around 600 BC in northern Punjab and foothills of the Himalayas, possibly by independent minded elements of society who rebelled against the hierarchic orthodoxy of the monarchies, which had been established in the plains. Much later, the widespread peasant revolt in Punjab in the 18th century, against the authoritarianism of Mughal rule, and celebrated in folk poetry by Sufi poets such as Najam Hussain Syed, further irrigated the perennial aspiration of equity and freedom in popular consciousness.

The Sufi tradition, which represents the unity amidst the diverse folk cultures of each of the four provinces of Pakistan, propounds freedom and the essential equality of all human beings in so far, as each has a bond with God. This bond is made palpable in a state of adoration of God and thereby makes possible for humans to tread the path of righteousness: the path of love, compassion and justice towards others. This wisdom finds resonance in the songs, dances and value system of our folk cultures whose images, in turn, are taken up and given spiritual depth in the Sufi poetry of this region. Bulleh Shah suggests that the journey to God is through love: “Demolish the temple, demolish the mosque, demolish all that can be demolished, but do not injure the human heart, for that is the abode of God.”

Counterposed to the love and compassion of the Sufi tradition is the egotism and greed that underlies the current violence by armed groups allegedly sponsored by various elements in the political sphere and within the state apparatus. Individuals shorn of their humanity and divorced from the traditional value system have descended to demonic depths. When the violence in Karachi was vividly described in a presentation to the federal cabinet on September 8, the sheer horror of it, reportedly, stunned the ministers. The Supreme Court too has called upon the government to quell this violence to establish the rule of law and save democracy. Clearly the time has come to exercise state power without fear or favour to re-establish order. Equally important in the years ahead is to rediscover the traditional norms and values that must now underpin Pakistan’s quest for democracy and a humane society.


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