WITHIN a matter of a few days, a number of events have taken place which reaffirm the truth that most forms of progressive movements and politics, or expressions of resistance, have come to a dismal end in Pakistan.
Let alone concerns and demands regarding social and structural transformation and the redistribution of wealth and assets, such as land reforms — notions which once constituted what one meant by the term ‘progressive’ — today, not even bourgeois claims of justice and rights cause a stir amongst what remains of a compromised and dysfunctional civil society. The last resistance movement of any note (that too progressive only because it was against one decision of Pakistan’s last military dictator) and better known as the ‘lawyers’ movement’, took place more than a decade ago. It is now marginalised to the archives except by a handful of those who participated in it.
One can cite a number of events that have taken place literally in the last few weeks, and which one would have thought would have galvanised sections of society once termed as progressive and radical, or even those who called themselves ‘activists’.
A new order of accommodation and compromise is replacing free speech and dissent.
For example, while ‘bol ke lab azad hain’ was being sung in the name of the radical poet from whom a festival in Lahore — symbolic now as a festival of nostalgia, rather than of radicalism or politics — gets its name, two academics and a former editor were barred from participating in the event, thus making a mockery of even the nostalgia. One or two panellists recorded their so-called dissent, but such mumblings were soon lost, replaced by more verses of Faiz.
While some academics consider going to such melas and literary and literature festivals as an annual ritual of radical political activism, even their slogans have been co-opted by government and establishment officials who are invited to such events.
As Faiz turns in his grave, wondering who he wrote ‘lab azad’ for, the once active and proud journalist community too has seen its relevance cut to size. The humiliation of an individual such as Husain Naqi — truly one of the few old-school activists and radicals on whom both terms sit justly — drew a response from only a few journalists organising a function for him — clearly admirable, but hardly the sort of thing that is resistance.
With a number of well-known, relatively progressive journalists having to leave their position of some importance as anchors or participants in television talk shows, the silencing of even minimal dissent has given way to the worst form of inane chatter on television, where any issue of real relevance is simply brushed aside. The proud tradition of journalists being part of the movement against every dictator has been forgotten as the new order of accommodation and compromise replaces free speech and dissent.
Perhaps the most visible sign of the failure of any sort of progressive movement, comes from what Arif Hasan in these pages called a ‘massacre’, first in Saddar, and now, more extensively, in other parts of Karachi. The cleansing and gentrification of parts of the city which were alive because of the people who lived and worked in such so-called encroachments have left a few thousand people jobless and distraught.
It was not these encroachments which were an eyesore in the city, but the empty spaces which now exist after their eviction and disembodiment. For a city of almost 25 million that witnessed such annihilation to sit idle and twiddle its thumbs is unbelievable and inexplicable. Where is the civil society one reads so much about?
Ironically, for a city which has been dominated by the politics of those who were once the lower middle classes, this absence reveals even more emptiness. While the elite would gather to march against the American consulate being built near a very elitist school or gather for some action to save parts of their favourite beaches, the destruction of the livelihood of many thousands just means better parking spaces for them if they ever venture ‘that side of Clifton bridge’. While Karachi has changed extensively over the last few years in many ways, the end of any kind of civic protest must represent the most dismal of changes.
One can cite numerous other examples which show disdain, such as those relating to the disappeared, or to the Pakhtun movement for the recognition of their human, civil and national rights or to those inappropriately called religious ‘minorities’. But the story is much the same. Except for the Pakhtun movement, perhaps the only progressive political movement in the country, there is no opposition to the policies or actions of the state, nor to its indifference. We have all succumbed to the middle-class middle-agedness, as blogs and Twitter become the great vanguard of radicalism and dissent, replacing all forms of collective organisation.
Pakistan must be one of the few countries in the world where there is a conspicuous absence of any form or nature of progressive, let alone radical, politics or movement. And this is not because the institutions of the state have somehow become stronger. They have been far stronger and more brutal in the past, and responsibility for the failure of progressive politics lies squarely on those of us who claim any affinity with the term.
Not even being able to muster a small group of people to protest against the destruction of our own city, let alone to start a movement for the disappeared, is a clear sign that progressive and radical politics too, like Faiz’s poetry, has now only become part of the nostalgia of a lost age. The direction of Pakistan’s present and future is clearly a consequence of this void created by the death of progressive movements and politics.
The writer is a Karachi-based political economist.
Published in Dawn, December 1st, 2018