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The tightening noose

Updated March 06, 2016


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

A FLAME 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.

Read: Pro-Qadri leaders, protesters booked.

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-in-rupee 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.

So, this week — step forward, two steps back, going round in circles? Maybe just a tightening noose — around liberals.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016