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Citizen Voices

Let’s Try Democracy For A Change

A lot has been written about the American Civil War. Obviously, as is the case with all of history, the version you know best depends on the side that you are on.

There is still the official version, which is recounted below. Again, as is the case with all of history, plenty of lessons abound in this story, even for us in Pakistan and even after over a century and a half have passed since these events.

The American Civil War started when the American South, where the economy was heavily dependent on agriculture, refused to end slavery. Meanwhile, the American North had transitioned to industry, so they began to slowly abandon slavery. The southern economy was more resilient than the northern one. By 1860, per capita wealth of southern whites was twice that of northerners, and almost 60% of the wealthiest individuals in the country were southerners. On the other hand, a large amount of manufacturing was invested in the northern states. By 1860, according to one study, 84% of the capital invested in manufacturing was invested in the free non-slave-holding northern states.

The war began when the Confederates (southerners) bombarded Union soldiers at Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Although there was no casualty among the Union soldiers, that attack was the beginning of a bloody civil war. The war continued for four years, ending in the spring of 1865.  Robert E. Lee surrendered the last major Confederate army to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.  The last battle was fought at Palmetto Ranch, Texas, on May 13, 1865.

After the surrender by the Confederates, some groups from the defeated armies refused to stop and formed groups like Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Thus, the era of racial hatred continued which lasted until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Here are a few questions worth considering. Would slavery in the north have died by itself in another two or three decades if there had been no war, as it did in the North? Also, can it be said that the contemporary hatred and racial division between American whites and American blacks are due to the civil war of 1800s, which saw a vast amount of damage on both sides?

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The answer to these questions can help us understand how societal divisions weaken countries.

Looking at the contemporary history of the US, relations between the races were at rock-bottom during the 60s when the civil rights movement began. It’s true that after World War 1, the power started shifting towards the US, and Great Britain began losing its monopoly. The British Empire expected another war with the US at the end of the 19th century until the rise of Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. The British Empire considered to intervene in the US civil war in support of Confederates to assure the formation of two states hostile to each other, but the plan was never implemented, and later British prime minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil voiced regret that his predecessors hadn’t intervened in the American Civil War to secure a break-up of the US and did not “reduce the power of the United States to manageable proportions.”

The faultlines in the US were hurting its progress, however. Americans lost the space race of the 1960s from the Soviets due in part to segregation of the races. According to Margot Lee Shetterly, as she writes in her book The Hidden Figures (2016), NACA – NASA’s counterpart – hired “women computers” to calculate orbital trajectories of space missions. There was gross discrimination among the white and the black women computers. They were not allowed to sit together, and the latter weren’t even allowed bathroom breaks. Such meaningless discrimination, as one understands all too well, only serves to compromise the efficiency and efficacy of any operation or objective.

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Can Pakistan take the US history of racial division as an example?  Although Pakistan may not have a race issue like in the US, but Pakistan faces many other very serious faultlines. Successive martial laws, lack of constitutionalism, extreme religious bigotry, provincialism etc have created serious damages in the social fabric of the country.  A lot has been written about the issues common Pakistanis face daily, but no one seems able to relate our stymied progress with the extreme division which exists and which proliferates in our society.

To expedite the progress of progress, established and powerful institutions unwisely keep usurping power, in apparent attempts to create a “clean” and “patriotic” group of rulers, who would help the country rise faster and keep up with all other nations in the region. Unfortunately, the obsession of creating a “competent” political system using a bunch of incompetent and corrupt characters, who can easily be bought and manipulated, is the very reason for all the disasters.

Democracy is what Pakistan needs; internal unity is what Pakistan should work toward achieving. We seriously lack freedom of speech, freedom to write and freedom to criticise in Pakistan. Why can’t we let the people and the judiciary do the accountability instead of prime ministers and ministers worrying about that? Why can’t we have economists make decisions about the economy? Why can’t diplomats, with the guidance of the civilian leadership, decide about foreign policy matters?

Letting everyone do the job that they are meant to, allowing dissent to exist and safeguarding everyone’s rights may take longer than a high-handed approach to fix everything in one go, but I think we have learnt enough from history to know that this is the only method that we can place our hopes in if we want to flourish. Let’s try democracy, for once.

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Naya Daur