The tight­en­ing noose

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Cyril Almeida

AFLAME flick­ered briefly this week, the savages vi­o­lently snuffed it out and folk won­dered - a step for­ward, two steps back, go­ing round in cir­cles, tight­en­ing noose, what? Be­cause this is Pak­istan it could be all of the above. We do con­found­ing well.

But let's not kid our­selves. Pak­istan isn't lib­eral. Pak­istan isn't about to be­come lib­eral. And Pak­istan's lib­er­als are set to re­main on the mar­gins.

Few, though, want to talk about why. Some pre­dictably blame Zia. True enough. Zia re­made Pak­istan in his im­age. He was the mon­ster and we are his spawn. And there were, oh, a hun­dred thou­sand or so of that spawn out in the streets this week.

Some of the more hon­est would go a lit­tle fur­ther back - ZAB did a num­ber on lib­er­als. He was their hero, but he wanted power more. Still, nei­ther of that re­ally feels sat­is­fac­tory any­more.

Ef­fects linger, but they also get over­taken. Bhutto has been dead for 40 years, Zia for 30. Nei­ther would prob­a­bly recog­nise Pak­istan to­day.

We are Pak­istan. The two hun­dred mil­lion around to­day. And, if you re­ally want to look, you can see where lib­er­als got it wrong.

To be­gin with, lib­er­als hitched their wagon to BB and her PPP. Sure, the father had dis­ap­pointed, but BB had fought a dic­ta­tor - the dic­ta­tor - and, hell, she was a woman.

Young, glam­orous, preg­nant, vic­tim, bro­ken Urdu - you couldn't write a bet­ter lib­eral script. Yes, the MQM had come along and the ANP had sur­vived, but on the na­tional stage it was BB and her PPP. BB, by her very ex­is­tence, by her con­vic­tion and courage, would ex­pand the space for lib­er­als in Pak­istan. And if that logic wasn't per­sua­sive enough - how could you not be­lieve that a war­rior woman, a global icon, our BB, would at least stop the drift to the right? Let's not kid our­selves. Pak­istan isn't lib­eral. Pak­istan isn't about to be­come lib­eral.

Turned out BB and Asif had dif­fer­ent ideas - very dif­fer­ent, dipped-in­rupee ideas. It's taken al­most a decade of Zar­dari to be­gin to cure lib­er­als of their PPP hang­over.

But the PPP link is not enough. There's clearly more.

The next prob­lem: the bar­gain lib­er­als struck. The grand bar­gain, the one struck with the state: let us be lib­eral in our worlds and we won't try and press a lib­eral agenda with state or so­ci­ety.

Es­sen­tially, lib­er­als agreed to give up their claim to pub­lic spa­ces so that their pri­vate spa­ces weren't mo­lested.

Pri­vate schools, com­fort­able homes, clubs, restau­rants, so­ci­eties - all an in­creas­ingly in­su­lar world, cut off from the out­side; an in­side where you, your fam­ily and friends can live mostly as you choose.

And if that too be­comes suf­fo­cat­ing, there's al­ways a plane ride to some­where to en­gage pub­lic spa­ces and breathe a bit. That bar­gain - State, keep your hands off our spa­ces and we in­ter­fere in what you do else­where - has both shrunk lib­eral cir­cles and cut them off from wider so­ci­ety. But there's more: a grow­ing anti-ac­tivist bent. Lib­er­als them­selves have held fel­low lib­er­als back.

Some­one tries to set up a com­mu­nity space for pro­gres­sive causes - she bet­ter be care­ful or she may get killed. Some­one goes on TV to chal­lenge the mul­lahs - what the hell is he think­ing, he's go­ing to get shot.

Some­one makes a doc­u­men­tary about ugly stuff in so­ci­ety - brave, but stupid. And that anti-ac­tivism be­comes all the stronger when bul­lets do fly and some­one does die. To­day, lib­er­als in Pak­istan wear their anti-ac­tivism with a be­fud­dling pride.

Fi­nally, there's the timid­ity - on the rare oc­ca­sion that so­cial is­sues are pub­licly em­braced. A women's pro­tec­tion law is not a lib­eral cause. If you ever needed to un­der­stand that you just need to see who's push­ing it through.

The PML-N hasn't be­come in­vested in this stuff be­cause the PML-N has be­come lib­eral; it's be­come in­vested in this stuff be­cause this stuff is now a self-ev­i­dent hu­man base­line.

Have a daugh­ter, sent her to school, seen her want to work, watched her have a ca­reer - and most rea­son­able peo­ple stop think­ing of her as prop­erty, they want her to suc­ceed, and they sure as hell don't want to see some man as­sault, vi­o­late or mur­der her.

It's not that com­pli­cated. You don't have to be lib­eral to un­der­stand that. But here we are in this bizarre sit­u­a­tion that lib­er­als, hav­ing fallen be­hind the so­cial-is­sues curve, have be­come cheer­lead­ers of a con­ser­va­tive govern­ment. Or take the hang­ing. The mur­derer's sup­port­ers have en­sured he will be re­mem­bered for gen­er­a­tions. His grave will prob­a­bly be­come a place of pil­grim­age.

But what of the mur­dered man? Thrilled that the state had done the job for them, where were the lib­eral calls to memo­ri­alise the gov­er­nor?

Cheer­ing the hang­ing only in­di­rectly hails the gov­er­nor. No one has stood up to em­brace the gov­er­nor di­rectly - or the cause he gave his life for. That's for an­other Pak­istan, or a never-Pak­istan.

It is pos­si­ble to stack up those rea­sons in re­verse. Aban­doned by the PPP, lib­er­als had to find a way to sur­vive. So, they with­drew from the pub­lic sphere to try and pro­tect their pri­vate spa­ces. That with­drawal to the pri­vate fu­elled an anti-ac­tivism that has worked to dis­cour­age the few who have tried to be ac­tivist out­liers.

And the anti-ac­tivism im­pulse has mor­phed into a broader con­ser­vatism that has left the lib­eral class trail­ing the trail­ing mod­er­ate con­ser­va­tives on so­cial is­sues. But that only works to ex­ter­nalise blame. Lib­er­al­ism has re­ally as­phyx­i­ated it­self.

Political fail­ure bred in­su­lar­ity and lib­eral in­su­lar­ity has made it pos­si­ble for state and so­ci­ety to be re­de­fined in a pri­vate af­fair be­tween the cen­tre right and the ex­treme right.

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