Rein­vent­ing an al­ter­na­tive

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Umair Javed

OVER the last decade or so, the chal­lenges posed by reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism and mil­i­tancy have pro­duced a wide va­ri­ety of re­ac­tions within the Pak­istani polity. The spec­trum and form of these re­ac­tions, rang­ing from knee-jerk, non-con­tex­tu­alised alarmism, to down­right re­fusal of ac­knowl­edg­ment, have in turn bred their own mi­cro-pol­i­tics. Some time ago, it was far less com­mon to see peo­ple be­ing iden­ti­fied as ‘fundo’ or ‘sec­u­lar­ist’ — value-judg­ment at­tached — but in con­tem­po­rary Pak­istan, these terms have some­how evolved as mark­ers of per­sonal be­lief sys­tems, life­styles and even ba­sic in­tel­li­gence.

The po­lar­i­sa­tion in dis­course bred by reli­gious mil­i­tancy in Pak­istan is, at the end of the day, a di­vide over the lenses used to process large amounts of in­for­ma­tion and an in­sis­tence on ar­rang­ing this in­for­ma­tion into pre-ex­ist­ing out­looks of how the world works.

Sim­i­larly, the so­lu­tions prof­fered for what hap­pens to be a very real prob­lem are also out­comes of these var­i­ous in­for­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing al­go­rithms. Un­der both strands, i.e. ad­vo­cat­ing for a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion, or ad­vo­cat­ing for ‘talks’, an end to drone at­tacks and a with­drawal of Amer­i­can troops from the re­gion, the so­lu­tion of­fered re­mains pre­cise and sin­gu­lar, not dis­sim­i­lar to the re­moval of a tu­mour.

This in­sis­tence of look­ing at so­lu­tions as pre­cise, tar­geted acts is quite symp­to­matic of our po­lit­i­cal dis­course in gen­eral. The re­cent fac­tory fires in Karachi and Lahore, for ex­am­ple, elicited a flurry of re­ac­tions re­lated to work­place safety, and gov­ern­ment neg­li­gence, yet very few peo­ple, out­side of pro­gres­sive cir­cles per­haps, were will­ing to talk about the larger prob­lem of labour rights in Pak­istan.

Even where a cer­tain seg­ment ex­hibits a so­phis­ti­cated and co­her­ent un­der­stand­ing of the coun­try’s prob­lems (gen­der in­equal­ity, faith-based dis­crim­i­na­tion, eco­nomic in­equal­ity), the so­lu­tions are of­ten con­tin­gent on a top-down in­duced change in the way the state and the le­gal sys­tem func­tions — re­peal the blas­phemy law, pro­tect the rights of women through leg­is­la­tion, stop court­ing mil­i­tant groups — as op­posed to cre­at­ing a de­mand from be­low.

There are sev­eral rea­sons be­hind this pref­er­ence for us­ing re­li­gion or state in­sti­tu­tions — many re­spon­si­ble for the prob­lems them­selves — to solve var­i­ous is­sues.

Firstly, there is no con­cep­tion of an al­ter­na­tive form of pol­i­tics — pub­lic or per­sonal — apart from what the coun­try has seen in the last three decades.

Peo­ple as­crib­ing to a re­li­gion-dic­tated world­view will re­vert to re­ju­ve­na­tion of faith, in­ter­nal pu­rity and close­ness with ‘true’ re­li­gion as a way of re­solv­ing worldly prob­lems. On the hand, peo­ple ad­vo­cat­ing a dif­fer­ent state of af­fairs will talk about the urge to ‘con­vince’ state of­fi­cials, judges, politi­cians and army men that they need to stop do­ing what’s wrong.

Se­condly, the sheer scale of the task of so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion, and this is specif­i­cally true for lib­er­als/pro­gres­sives/sec­u­lar­ists, is im­mense, and suf­fi­cient to dis­suade peo­ple from even con­sid­er­ing it as an op­tion.

The idea of ‘tak­ing back’ pub­lic space, from the rad­i­calised cler­ics, the big­ots and the in­tol­er­ant many, car­ries great cur­rency, yet its ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion will have to be done through on-the­ground pol­i­tics.

This has re­sulted in an odd form of cyn­i­cism where peo­ple, while pay­ing rhetor­i­cal homage to cer­tain ideals, are gen­er­ally wary or even down­right dis­mis­sive of al­ter­na­tive path­ways to achieve those very ideals.

Noth­ing, per­haps, cap­tures this re­al­ity bet­ter than the at­ti­tude of the in­tel­li­gentsia to­wards the idea of left­ist pol­i­tics in Pak­istan, and more specif­i­cally to news of the re­cent merger be­tween three left-wing po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

The newer gen­er­a­tion, specif­i­cally those who grew up dur­ing the 1980s, see the idea of a vi­brant left in Pak­istan as a relic of a par­tic­u­lar past that ceased to ex­ist once the Ber­lin wall fell. Hence, many as­so­ciate con­tem­po­rary mem­bers of the left as peo­ple suf­fer­ing from a long-stand­ing Soviet han­gover, out­dated and out of touch with a world that’s moved on very rapidly.

The truth is, how­ever, that the process of rein­ven­tion within the do­main of pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics has been tak­ing place in many parts of the world, such as Latin Amer­ica, and some in Pak­istan are now wak­ing up to this in­tel­lec­tual and prac­ti­cal ex­er­cise as well.

This rein­ven­tion ac­knowl­edges the fail­ures of the past, specif­i­cally with re­gard to the ques­tion of Cold War-era to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and op­pres­sion, and seeks to re­de­velop a more hu­mane, just and demo­cratic view of what it means to be pro­gres­sive in the 21st cen­tury.

From a per­sonal van­tage point, one can posit that there was and is a need to re­visit the idea of what ex­actly con­sti­tutes pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics within the con­text of Pak­istan, and then eval­u­ate whether any of our ex­ist­ing main­stream op­tions cater to its pa­ram­e­ters.

This dis­cus­sion, in turn, would have to shift the goal­posts from pre­cise in­ci­dents — Malala, fac­tory fire — to broader cat­e­gories such as Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism, eco­nomic in­equal­ity, and pro­duce co­her­ent, work­able re­sponses from within the do­main of pol­i­tics. Nat­u­rally, no one would deny that there aren’t prob­lems with the think­ing or the ac­tual pol­i­tics of the left, but this is ex­actly what a broader dis­cus­sion, with more par­tic­i­pants, would ad­dress over time.

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