The abyss stares back

Published June 8, 2014

IT’S almost enough to make one pick up a guitar and serenade Aabpara, Dylan-like, singing ‘How many times must a road blow up, before you find another track?’

This time, it’s Shafiq Mengal, the man accused by many in Balochistan as being the leader of death squads. His organisation is the Mussalah Difai Tanzeem, which every Baloch points to as being the main proxy of the security apparatus, the one hushed whispers and loud slogans identify as being responsible for torture, for the mass graves in Khuzdar.

For three years, Mengal’s reign of allegedly patronised terror extended across the region uninterrupted. Now an FIR has now been lodged against him by the Balochistan Levies for an assault that led to the deaths of eight Levies men in Wadh tehsil of Khuzdar.

Whenever the state has turned to proxies, the proxies have eventually turned to cannibalise the hand that fed them: Kashmir; jihadis; Afghanistan; Taliban; certain media persons; and particular right-wing political parties. To phrase it with Nietzschean eloquence, the abyss stares back at you.

Proxies remain a challenge to the state.

That intangible matrix we call the deep state has changed — or at least its terms of engagement. We are now able to criticise institutions such as the army. In the aftermath of the Abbottabad Find, the lawyers’ movement against Gen Musharraf, the judicial stand-off and the strengthening of the democratic process, we’ve wrested that much. Of course, the gains are incremental and dialectical, as the recent media crisis showed.

The resentment against the army is primarily because it has repeatedly subverted the political process, overtly through military regimes and covertly through embedding itself in the civilian realm and appropriating disproportionate budgets. It has not, however, been accused of the level of brutality associated with armies in the ‘dirty wars’ of Central America, of genocidal killings as of the dictatorships of South America; of mass scale human rights violations perpetrated by armies in Africa, or of instrumentalising rape such as has been done by the armies of Bosnia and India. Our coups are bloodless and our resistance to them (mostly) bloodless.

But the strategy of proxies has the same effect. People are neither stupid nor disconnected, as anyone outside Islamabad can testify. They attribute the crimes of the proxy to the patrons, which defeats the purpose of having proxies in the first place, and creates insurmountable future crises not just for the common citizens but for the patrons as well.

By the time second thoughts sink in, and it is contestable that they do so at all, the patrons are invested, beholden, blackmailed, compromised, and finally become targets themselves.

Even if antagonism between proxies and patrons does not emerge, the crisis remains. Proxies, by being allowed power and impunity, remain a challenge to the state and compromise its sovereignty. The nation-state, genetically, must achieve monopoly over the means of violence. Ours has never even tried. The nature of the social contract here allows enclaves of the right to violence to coexist with that of the state. In its bid for political legitimacy, the state ‘democratises’ the right to violence to create a community of interests: the feudal/ tribal leader; the faislo; the jirga; the head of family; the jihadi; the Talib.

The accusation of misogyny and patriarchy is largely the acknowledgement that men and families in their anti-women positions, and the power groups mentioned above, work as proxies for each other.

By being allowing zones of permissible violence, every power wielder becomes a stakeholder in a shared moral order. The state retains the right to violence in the public sphere and others in the private sphere, where what constitutes the public and private ranges from conflict to conflict. These enclaves are not static. Frictions arise when one breaches the frontiers of the other. But the primary contradiction remains in their very existence.

The core elements of a state are its territorial base, its institutional expressions and its central idea. The latter is vital to the coherence of the state because it provides a mechanism for persuading citizens to subordinate themselves to the state’s authority.

The lack of internal political consensus on the idea of the state leaves it reliant on the use of force in the domestic arena. Legitimisation is important if the power-wielder is to enjoy moral authority in addition to bare power. This legitimacy is created by sharing entitlement, allowing for a consensus over impunity for the use of force.

Can the state afford to let go of the strategy of proxies and disallow enclaves of violence, preserving the right to it for itself alone? It is simple to attribute this dysfunction to a lack of political will. When the very idea of the state remains contested, when the consent of the governed is arrived at through a series of deflected contracts, when the state’s legitimacy rests on these agreements, when monopolising violence means shredding those agreements, what does political will mean? A different social contract?

I doubt the answers are blowing in the wind.


Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2014



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