A history of public spaces, newspapers and crowd politics

Published February 27, 2016
Dr Mubarak Ali speaks at the event. —White Star
Dr Mubarak Ali speaks at the event. —White Star

KARACHI: Coffee houses established in 17th Century Europe were the first nurseries of democracy. Print media in Pakistan has many a time welcomed the imposition of martial law. Crowd politics in India has led to a larger debate about democracy. These were some of the thoughts expressed by different speakers on Friday at a conference titled ‘History and democracy’ organised by the Pakistan Study Centre and Tareekh Foundation at the arts auditorium in Karachi.

Reputed historian Dr Mubarak Ali said in his introduction that he often collaborated with the Pakistan Study Centre to arrange history conferences and the topics of the earlier ones included History and Nationalism and, History and Martial Law, and so far this was the 18th. He also spoke briefly about the Tareekh Foundation, of which he is the founding member, saying it was recently set up and its members included historians and social science professors from Karachi and Lahore.

‘Nurseries of democracy’

Dr Riaz Sheikh, dean of the faculty of social sciences at Szabist, read out a paper on the history of democracy and public spaces as described by influential philosophers.

“According to Neo-Marxist German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, political and economic shifts started to occur in Europe in 13th Century. Basic models of towns and cities were being produced. Guilds were formed. This process continued for the next three centuries.

Then in 17th Century public space domains began coming to the fore especially in England, Germany and France in the form of coffee houses and saloons where debates would take place on philosophy, art, culture and politics.”

These spaces were the first nurseries of democracy and democratic culture, explained Dr Sheikh.

Media and OBL incident

Mass communications professor Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan spoke passionately about the history of newspapers and its role in the political landscape of Pakistan, castigating them for their role in language riots and the anti-Ahmadi movement, and being in collusion with the dictators of the time and working against democracy and democratically elected leaders.

“Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin tasked Justice Munir to analyse the causes of the anti-Ahmadi agitation in the 1950s. The report concluded that four newspapers were used by the Punjab government to instigate these riots.”

He then went on to encapsulate the role of newspapers decade by decade including their forceful participation in shaping the Taliban narrative, memogate scandal, post Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad and Pakistan-India relations.

“The Pakistan Army was clearly at fault in the OBL incident. The media did not ask relevant questions and instead spun stories about US breaching the sovereignty of the country. A campaign was started in Urdu newspapers that no inquiry should be done on OBL.”

‘People’s uprising’

Pakistan Study Centre Director Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed highlighted politics of the crowd in Pakistan in recent times. “In 2014 two political parties in Islamabad surrounded the parliament for four months. Some said this was happening because parliament had failed its people while others viewed the sit-in as part of the democratic process.”

However, he lamented that this did not lead to further debates and introspection. On the other hand, in India where corruption has formed the basis of many protests in recent times and created the likes of the Aam Admi Party, it has led to vigorous debates and analyses.

He traced the history of crowd politics in Pakistan to the era of Ayub Khan when people had enough of him as he had been in power for nearly a decade and were restless for a change. “Crowds poured into the streets to demand his resignation. It was called people’s uprising. Then there was the PNA movement against Bhutto and the lawyers’ movement in 2007.”

According to him, such crowds in such settings raise some obvious questions such as what is a crowd? What is the relationship between crowd and politics? He suggested that one could peruse political literature for answers to these questions such as Crowds and Power by Elias Cancetti and The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century by E. P. Thompson.

Lahore-based philosopher and historian Ashfaq Saleem Mirza discussed the impact of feudal politician. “The pir-jagirdar-politician which we see in the likes of Shah Mahmood Qureshi and late Makhdoom Amin Fahim has left a deep influence.”

The chairperson of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Chair, Sahar Gul, spoke about the history of social contracts and social justice beginning from Greece until modern-day Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, February 27th, 2016

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