South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.

Recent events have once again raised the spectre of force and violence in our fragile polity. The arrests of opposition leaders and political activists have ignited memories of the decades from the 80s to the 2000s, when the opposition was found either in jail or in exile. The problems being faced by the media only heighten the anxiety associated with speech in the public sphere. Yet, the quest for domination is not over.

In one of the most brazen statements promoting violence, federal minister Faisal Vawda proposed the hanging of five thousand people as a remedy to the disparate crises facing Pakistan, a move apparently hindered by ‘irritants’ such as the country’s Constitution. It seems there is no dearth among us of those looking forward to a situation where spectacles involving cruelty will compensate for the undeniable failures at the level of public policy and governance, pushing society deeper into the vortex of conflict and uncertainty.

Perhaps the more scary fact is that such fetish for violence is not restricted to those in power but has a mass appeal in contemporary Pakistan. We all have grown up in households where the words “latka do sabko” was as recurrent as discussions on career choices or family gossip. This latent sentiment that prioritizes the visible suffering of others over policy orientations has been galvanized by the ruling party; the more the government chooses to punish its opponents, the more it solidifies a base that seeks public displays of retribution, tying together the knot of cruelty and enjoyment.

The task of theorists and intellectuals cannot be reduced to merely condemning what is evidently a terrifying tendency in our society. Beyond the moral outrage we need to explain the structural conditions that produce a psyche that is indifferent to the suffering of others. This violence has to be deciphered if we are to present a substantial, rather than merely a formal, challenge to the existing apparatus of coercion.

One key reason can be located in the experience of modernity that is specific to colonial and postcolonial societies. Since our societies entered capitalism under coercion, we never experienced the revolutionary changes from below, which are essential for a modern, bourgeois society. Instead, capitalist modernity was imposed on a society that never fully shed its feudal social relations, even as it became increasing integrated into global markets. Moreover, the policy of divide and rule strengthened – and at times even produced – divisions in society, making the possibility of equal citizenship even more tenuous. The result was the juxtaposition of multiple tendencies within the same social formation as differences emanating from class, caste, religion and region were exacerbated rather than eroding due to the march of modernity.

This context produces a fragmented experience of time and space that divides disparate individuals living within a specific space. It can explain why national bonds in postcolonial states are so fragile and perpetually haunted by a radical emptiness, since the multiple segregations in society allow others to appear as hostile strangers than as citizens sharing a similar project.

Yet, this void can be partially stitched through politics by developing a minimal ‘national’, ‘regional’ or ‘global’ agenda in which different segments of society can participate collectively. Such a process not only gives the state its legitimacy, but also propels the transformation of separated, fragmented individuals into citizens. In other words, people not only develop relations with anonymous individuals sharing the same project, but also rediscover themselves as agents that are participating in a historical project that exceeds the limits of their social origin.

This is why constitutions, political parties and social movements are so central in developing a common bond that can propel the process of our collective becoming. Pakistan’s greatest tragedy is that this process was thwarted by repeated interruptions coups and the opportunism of certain political elites, resulting in the increasing insularity of our personal and public life. Our tendency to demonize nearly all social movements as ‘foreign conspiracies’ reflects how we inhabit a space of hyper uncertainty, suspicion and anxiety, producing alienated and fragmented groups rather than providing a sense of community.

Liberals often castigate the Pakistani state for its theocratic tendencies, particularly due to the poor treatment meted to women and religious minorities. But at times one feels that the rule of suspicion and uncertainty is deeper than fidelity to any religious orthodoxy. Remember that the Constitution, which claims to belong to God, has been suspended/abrogated at will by mere mortals, signaling that perhaps Pakistan’s political tragedy is that we do not hold anything as sacred, a condition that is simply masked by the overt religiosity of our public sphere.

What then is the minimal common substance that stems out of this emptiness? It is inevitably the primordial sentiment of the fear of others. It takes the form of the fear of different ethnic or religious communities, of assertive women, of social movements or anything that threatens the infinite repetition of an insular existence. This is why movements are increasingly viewed as conspiracies, since they happen to be foreign to the survivalist ethos that has gripped our society, producing a mediocre existence that can hardly be dignified with the word ‘life’.

The only ‘national’ sentiment bringing us together then is the fear stemming from the fragmentation and uncertainty that shapes our social existence. We live in a republic of fear. This fear craves security and lends energy to the increasing policing and securitization that is overwhelming our society. Institutions and practices that most fully correspond to this sentiment assume centrality in the equation outlined. There is no long-term policy of development, education or even a well-articulated vision of regional security. Instead, there is a perpetual readiness to subdue ‘threats’ that haunt us. But since this fear stems from a deep absence of a common purpose, it cannot be satisfied by a specific amount of suppression. Years of authoritarianism, repression, action against political dissidents and censoring of the media – and yet you have the Vawdas of this world asking for another five thousand heads. Give them those and they won’t stop there either, since they are caught in a logic that demands more in order to cover the emptiness at the heart of our national life, unleashing a cycle of violence that perpetually exceeds its own limits.

This is why, in the context of fear, the debate on civilian/the political versus non-civilians/the non-political is inadequate in describing our current predicament. It is not just some people in specific institutions that are impositional (even if we tend to look that way for the most concentrated expression of this). Instead, what we face is a tendency that grips our entire society and forces all of us to become participants, since we lack a language to relate to others other than through the prism of suspicion. We cannot face this tendency with mere lectures on tolerance or democracy.

Pakistan is in desperate search for a vision that can initiate a common political project shared by citizens with varying social, psychological and economic experiences. Political parties and social movements would have to propose and initiate a process in which our divided people can recognize each other not as threats, but as agents propelled by similar reasons and passions. Only then will we manage to replace suspicion with solidarity, cruelty with empathy, and coercion with reason. Undoubtedly these are distant ideals, but we have no option but to hold onto them since the costs of submitting to reality as it exists appears as a terrifying compromise in contemporary Pakistan.

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Updated On: June 21, 2019