By: Amir Hussain

The notion of civil society has essentially remained a Western concept that was introduced during the colonial period as an instrument of social legitimacy for colonial rule. This is a powerful assertion that emanates from the work of Edward W Said and his followers of postcolonial political theory.

From the perspective of postcolonial political theory, the idea of a non-Western civil society is a pastiche of varying critical discourses that emerged in the non-Western world during the political turmoil of decolonialisation and the advent of the nation-state as its corollary. With all their theoretical credence, Edward W Said and his contemporaries of postcolonial critical theory took a cue from Gramsci’s critique of civil society as a means of establishing the ideological hegemony of the ruling class. Gramsci saw the hegemonic role of civil society within the context of the class system of capitalism in the West while postcolonial critical theorists expanded the idea in the context of the coloniser and the colonised – ie between the West and non-Western underdeveloped societies.

In the West, the genesis of the nation state goes back to the Treaty of Westphalia 1648. The Western civilisation was crystalised as a political entity of essence-based nationalities. The essence-based division of Europe into nation-states paved the way for an ethnocentric politics of identity. During the colonial era, Western powers introduced indirect rule as a form of governance to establish a political writ within their colonies. Indirect rule – which entailed delegating legal and political powers to local/tribal leaders – created a dual system of governance through a truce. As a result, the Western constitutional and legal framework of the nation-state was the preserve of settlers of urban life only.

Both Francophone and Anglophone postcolonial nations are marred by this dichotomy of rule which triggered the struggle for dominance between the natives and the settlers. In this politico-legal context, civil society in the non-Western world was introduced as an association of citizens ruled by civil law. It excluded both the rural/tribal system of governance – which was deemed stagnant and backward – and the indigenous forms of social arrangements among locals as uncivil society. This Westernised and unreconstructed form of civil society was restrained by an inorganic mode of expression, which could not produce local social movements, a cultural renaissance and political discourses of economic transformation.

Nationalist movements for decolonialisation were also paradoxical in nature. On the one hand, they claimed to be forces of liberation from Western dominance while on the other they were driven by an ethnocentric political paradigm of the nation state. That is why these nationalist struggles of decolonialisation could not transform into nation-building projects in the postcolonial state. The inner contradictions of these nationalist movements were so intense that they, at times, led to genocide to attain political supremacy.

In Pakistan, ethnic nationalities form the political mosaic with an irreconcilable geographical claim based on ethnicity. These groups define their political identities as distinct from each other while the official ideology does not cement them to build a national, political and ideological narrative.

Each of these nationalities has a history of a struggle against British colonialism. But these freedom movements could not be translated into a singular ideological narrative of the nation state. The cessation of East Pakistan on ethnic grounds in 1971 is an example of how postcolonial states internalised an essentially Westernised ethnocentric ideology which did not work in multi-ethnic non-European societies.

Liberation movements – which led to the formation of organically incongruent nation-states – internalised the contradictions of the native and settler dichotomy. In Pakistan, regional nationalist movements define their indigenousness by ascribing other nationalities as non-local or settler.

For instance, in contemporary India, Hindu nationalism draws its political legitimacy as being native/indigenous and pure while blaming Muslims as being settlers and foreigners. Though Hinduism has never been a single religion, a process of political and cultural homogenisation is taking place to carve out a fabricated, indigenous identity.

In most of the Muslim societies of the Middle East, religion is seen as official ideology but such political arrangements are ephemeral and transient in nature because Arab and Persian nationalism dominate the discourse of political identities even today.

It would be reductive to associate all anti-colonial freedom movements as by-products of colonial indirect rule. This would be an injustice with the genuine political movements of freedom inspired by our political icons of anti-imperialism like Bhagat Singh and Fanon Frantz. However, these political movements were overshadowed by nationalist movements created out of the legal system of bifurcation between civil and customary law through indirect rule.

Coming back to the civil society debate, the non-Western foundations of indigenous civil society could not evolve as an independent political force for the socio-economic transformation of the people of the developing countries. The bifurcated citizenship of locals and settlers gave birth to decentralised despotism – a phrase used by Professor Mahmood Mamdani. The best example of decentralised despotism in Pakistan is the emergence of nationalist movements led by local despots or tribal lords who used this parochial nationalism as a bargaining chip to strike deals with the central government. Decentralised despotism also stifled voices of dissent against the oppressive regimes of local depots and, thereby, killed the possibility of the emergence of an organic civil society movement.

The Westernised urban civil society movements dismissed the local voices of dissent as chauvinistic and backward. Western civil society, represented through NGOs, considered it convenient to deal with tribal lords to undertake development work rather than promote the voices of the oppressed and, therefore, created a non-transformative and instrumental conception of civil society. This led to the staggering disillusionment of the historical role of civil society to help transform the structures of control, rule and governance in favour of citizens.

The non-Western conceptions of civil society could not systematically evolve with the colonial disruption of the trajectory of the political and economic transformation of the colonialised societies of Asia and Africa. Postcolonial critical theorists of civil society discuss several variants of the organic forms of civic associations that can potentially create a non-Western equivalent of civil society as a platform to represent indigenous voices.

In Muslim societies, like Pakistan, most of these variants of local civil society, could not find venues for self-expression and have, therefore, gradually transformed into extremist groups who see the Westernised nation state and its civil society as their common enemies. They need to be taken seriously and engaged in a civil society debate rather than dismissed as uncivil society. Our Westernised civil society has terribly failed to play its due role in social transformation. That is why we must explore new avenues rooted in local realities.