THE past few days have seen two ‘operations’ against civilian populations in two very different parts of this country unfold, one in full view of a watching public and the other shrouded in complete secrecy. In Islamabad, the working people of a Pakhtun katchi abadi have resisted various attempts by the authorities to evict them from their homes. Meanwhile, the army has intensified its fight against Baloch separatists holed up in the Awaran district of Balochistan.
There are, of course, many other state-led ‘operations’ also ongoing across this land of the pure – in Karachi, North Waziristan and other Fata agencies, and against militant nationalists in rural Sindh. Indeed the story of the Pakistani state could very well be paraphrased as a history of state repression against populations considered a ‘threat’ to ‘national security’.
It is nevertheless instructive to compare and contrast these ‘threatening’ populations, why the state chooses to criminalise them, and the narratives about ‘operations’ which are propagated within the public sphere.
The state chooses to criminalise populations it perceives as ‘threatening’.
The similarities are obvious; whether one is a rehri-wala eking out a living in Islamabad’s sabzi mandi and living in the nearby katchi abadi in the capital’s I-11 sector, or a young Baloch resident of the Mashkay area of Awaran, the state and its ideologues in the media and intelligentsia never tire of beating the dead horses of criminality, terrorism and illegality. It is in such contexts that the brute reality of class and ethnic-national oppression is laid completely bare.
Yet the differences in how this oppression plays out are glaring. A poor Pakhtun in Islamabad’s biggest katchi abadi faces arrests, jail time and bulldozers but can tell the world about these injustices through a media that might not disclose all but at least does not withhold everything. The Baloch national movement, on the other hand, is depicted as completely illegitimate, funded by our enemies, and a threat to all the values held dear by the Pakistani ‘nation’.
Certainly the crass disregard for the right to life and housing that the Capital Development Authority and Islamabad Capital Territory have displayed in kicking out working people onto the street is not to be understated. Although many of us have a highly caricatured image of katchi abadis in our heads, that does not mean that the class war which plays out between the residents of such abadis and the state on a daily basis must not be acknowledged as exactly that – a war.
But it is also undoubtedly true that the wars being played out in parts of Fata and Balochistan are of another magnitude altogether. These wars — which primarily pit a dominant nation-state against oppressed nations — feature deaths, disappearances, and other forms of often unspeakable violence. At the very least one can safely say that the state is simply not willing to allow any disclosure about operations in the country’s peripheral regions.
It is not as if the state harbours any great concern for the Pakhtuns who languish in the I-11 katchiabadi; in fact it treats such populations as subjects, disenfranchising them at will and demonising them at the same time. The simple truth is that state institutions cannot get away with the same excesses in Islamabad as they can in Mashkay or Mirali. This also speaks to the fact that the Punjabi heartland and major metropolitan centres are at least nominally administered by civilian authorities whereas in the peripheries no one can do or think anything without the permission of the men in khaki.
In this tale of two operations – designed to achieve fundamentally similar objectives using vastly differing combinations of coercion and co-option – the state inevitably fails to account for the political power of those whose rights and resources it seeks to pillage. Even before the modern state became the repository of power in society, history was incomplete without the narratives of the ordinary women and men who bravely resisted the rich and powerful. This resistance has evolved through the modern era and is the only silver lining in a story otherwise replete with loot, plunder, war and suffering.
Both the Pakhtun worker whose katchi abadis are under threat and the Baloch civilian populations who face indiscriminate state violence are constitutive of the larger people’s history that we have yet to write in this country. It is now more than three decades since Indian Marxist academics initiated the project of Subaltern Studies in that country; similar projects have been undertaken by numerous dissident intellectuals in Europe and the US too.
The Pakistani intelligentsia has demonstrated time and again that it is concerned with little else than towing the official line – yet a handful of dissidents continue to express their commitment to a politics of the people. I would like to believe that future generations of Pakistanis will remember them as history-makers.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2015