FESTIVAL: Political games

Updated 28 Feb 2016

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(From left to right) Dr Kamal Munir, Sherry Rehman, Salman Haider and Dina Siddiqi at the session ‘Lurching Rightwards: South Asia in the Balance’ 	
— Azhar Jafri/White Star
(From left to right) Dr Kamal Munir, Sherry Rehman, Salman Haider and Dina Siddiqi at the session ‘Lurching Rightwards: South Asia in the Balance’ — Azhar Jafri/White Star

HOW are global loci of power affecting our world? How will internal and external factors influence the future of politics in South Asia? Is the feminist movement a global one? Do the results of the revolutions led by mass civilian movements in the Middle East strike nothing but a note of despondency now? LLF this year held a series of conversations around all of these questions.

The session titled ‘Contemporary Great Games’ was devoted to a broad analysis of the interests of key global powers and how they are shaping our world today. The conversation was initially centred on the rising power of China; its “economic imperialism”, as Hina Rabbani Khar put it, and the US’s attempts to engage with the country but also hedge it.

Another growing power in today’s world is perhaps the palpable rise of non-state actors, to which Khar brought attention as former Kyrgyz president Rosa Otunbayeva expressed deep concern that even ostensibly secular Central Asian countries were taking up arms and joining the militant Islamic State group. The perplexing potency of this pan-national discourse created by the IS deserved greater engagement than was possible with a six-person panel within a limited time frame.

The discussion moved towards questions of national identity and journalist Steve Coll pointed towards Pakistan’s troubled negotiations with its own identity and its powerful nationalism. Coll and Khar were optimistic about the country going through a time of introspection and moving towards a more pluralistic and flexible identity.

Sherry Rehman, in a session titled ‘Lurching Rightwards: South Asia in the Balance’ also spoke of the need for a “historically informed and diverse sense of identity” to combat hyper-nationalisms which fed on race and religion. Many a panellist talked of the need for creating a sense of history and reviving links with suppressed versions of it to help heal the crises of bounded national identities crafted in opposition, which are leading to a marked worldwide shift towards the politic of the right.

However, the problem at the heart of the matter — that the formation of almost any nation state always rests on the creation of an exclusionary identity was pointed out mainly by Bengali academic Dina Siddiqi. Fault lines existing within national identities are easily galvanised into rightist tendencies, even in self-declared secular states such as India as we are now witnessing. How are troubled national identities related to the rise of powerful pan-national ideologies such that of IS? This is a significant question that perhaps the next LLF should address.

The frittering away of any active leftist politics in South Asia and the rise of increasingly authoritarian states which severely police political dissent and massively breach civilian freedoms remained rather inadequately addressed in the panel devoted to it. Rehman held that global politics in the ’80s and ’90s were such that the discourse of the left was adopted by the centre in states such as Pakistan and this continues to some extent, she said, citing the existence of the Benazir Income Support Programme. On the other hand, former Indian ambassador to the UK, Salman Haider, was oddly adamant that since state institutions in India have “not been hollowed out”, any rightwards shift does not discredit the state entirely.

In ‘Friends, not Masters?’ the national obsession and hobby of discussing Pakistan-US relations surfaced in a session devoted to the future of the two countries’ relations in light of the upcoming presidential election in the US. Rehman rightly pointed out that this topic has been “fetishised and overanalysed”, as she and Shuja Nawaz agreed that Pakistan needs to develop a robust vision and civilian governance strength of its own.

The Middle East came under discussion with respect to how viable attempts to drive change and reclaim power by the have-nots are. The session ‘Arab Spring: a Frank Obituary’ had Palestinian-American writer and activist Susan Abulhawa, Egyptian-American feminist, writer and journalist Mona Eltahawy, Iranian photojournalist Reza Deghati and Viviana Mazza discuss this.

The panellists were in consensus over the fact that a revolution is a drawn-out and fluid process which takes place over decades, and so it is ungenerous to latch on to its manifestation in a discrete moment and attempt to pronounce success or failure so soon. Eltahawy strongly held that the uprisings in the Middle East had given people the power to “imagine and enact the impossible and demand justice and equality”, and that this has shaken the confidence of fascist leaders.

That is all very well, but the ugly fact remains that the events in the Middle East over the last few years did not take place in a vacuum and are closely related to larger geopolitical events.

Gladly, Abulhawa and Mazza brought up this crucial point during the second half of the session. It was stressed that the interests of arms dealers, and global powers and their proxy wars, as well as the effects of the disastrous US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilisation of the area and the economic infrastructure of organisations like IS need to be understood.

Without taking away the agency of the people and the way civilian-led movements played a fundamental role in breaking up people’s fears, the panel did conclude that the influence of external powers such as Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US in the drama of the Middle East cannot be understated.

Another political movement; a historical and global one was discussed in the session ‘Feminism and Global Politics’ by writers Rachel Holmes and Anita Anand, Eltahawy and Siddiqi. Holmes pointed out that feminism was the first democratic movement in history and has a notably non-violent history. Eltahawy took a hard line on the issue and explicated on what she calls the “trifecta of misogyny”; how states, societies and religions come together to suppress women and the need for a global feminist movement. Interestingly, it emerged from Anand and Eltahawy’s discussions that sexual violence of a very specific kind has been deployed against most protesting women in varying times and spaces; from the suffragette movement to the Tahrir Square protests.

Indeed, gender and sexuality have always been means of policing populations, and feminism is a worldwide transnational movement. But can all feminist aspirations be collapsed into a single “global movement” as Eltahawy contended? Not all forms of feminist narratives have been innocent; a notable case is the use of feminist rhetoric for imperial advances.

Siddiqi added to the conversation along this note by bringing up the fact that racism, ethnicity, imperialism and structures of knowledge production have a deeply entangled relationship with feminism, and monolithic global feminist agendas can silence women for whom feminism may mean different things. Aside from some poor moderating and self-congratulatory references to the literary festival taking place, as well as tenuous claims of the this being related to some kind of positive ‘change’ at a national level, the variety of political sessions at the LLF were stimulating.