IN any country that frequently exhibits violence and various kinds of deeply entrenched inequalities, it is often difficult to find silver linings. This remains a recurring reality as far as society and polity in Pakistan is concerned. Numerous kinds of tumult and conflict form the basis of everyday news reporting, and perhaps more tellingly, many other kinds of tumult and conflict — especially those in regions deemed peripheral to the political and social imagination — fail to make it even to the headlines.
Compounding the predicament is the generally adverse behaviour of the state elite — visible through the passage of regressive legislation, self-serving rent-seeking, or autocratic impositions of national identity. Thus, despite its purported constitutional role to the contrary, the Pakistani state has not been a source of emancipation or welfare.
With the spectre of Islamist militancy and religious fundamentalism looming large in the last decade, several commentators have pointed out that the state’s behaviour is not only underpinned but also guided by a society that itself is largely regressive and authoritarian. There is also a fairly common refrain that even when the state elite does wish to rectify its past failings — especially in the cultural realm — the backlash from society prevents it from doing so.
In a sense, what is being (persuasively) argued is that the current configuration of state-society relations places politics in an inescapable bind: There is institutional oppression from the security state because the fabric of social relations is woven together with everyday micro-oppressions. There is regressive chauvinism in political discourse because society speaks with the same voice. One feeds off the other, and while the Pakistani state was constitutive of this configuration at one point in time, its role in the present has been to reflect and reinforce it.
Over the last year or so, there have been a number of events and trends that provide some cause for optimism.
This interpretation leaves for some pretty pessimistic conclusion. If there is a base-level of agreement that a variety of material and cultural injustices exist in the country, then a straitjacketed (or worse, ideologically motivated) state and society combine will not allow for a rectification.
However, over the last year or so, there have been a number of events and under-the-radar trends that provide some cause for optimism. There is no guarantee that they will necessarily translate into transformative changes in the way hierarchies and inequities currently play out. At the same time, though, they carry within them the kernel to produce new pockets of resistance anchored in alternative visions for Pakistani state and society.
The most well-documented one so far is the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which speaks with the language of constitutional rights, community recognition, and identity affirmation. Much has been written about it, and, as a movement, it shares historical antecedent with ethnic rights movements of the past, which have challenged unitary impositions of ideology, centralised exercises of power. In essence, the nature of such movements open up conversations about civil and political rights in the country.
Beyond the assertion of constitutional and community rights, large urban centres have also seen a significant upsurge of claim-making on the issue of civil rights, gender, access to public space, and, broadly, on the nature of citizenship itself. The most encouraging aspect of this has been the number of young people leading and participating in these processes.
As someone who is occupationally engaged with young people, I can personally vouch for the fact that the generation in their late teens and 20s today is wrongly painted as apathetic, disengaged, or uncritical. In fact many demonstrate an understanding of their context, an intellectual curiosity, and levels of empathy that is far more sophisticated than previous generations.
This is demonstrably visible in the fact that students across different universities, and more relevantly, across different social classes, have become more vocal in talking about the issues that concern them, and proposing changes to the way their lives are currently regulated. Whether it’s through organisations like the Progressive Students’ Collective (PSC), events like the Students’ March, or in more diffused settings on public and private sector university campuses, there is a small but growing and genuine appetite for intellectual and cultural freedom.
Similarly, on women’s day events and rallies that were held on March 8, the most encouraging aspect was to see not just the number of young women who had taken up leadership and organisational positions, but also undertaken extensive efforts to make their platforms more inclusive along a number of axes (such as class, occupation, and sexual orientation). This has allowed the Aurat March, in particular, to become a much bigger event, and allowed for the expression of cultural alternatives that remained muted from the mainstream just a short while ago.
What makes these new avenues of resistance and claim-making possible? A short answer would be the internet, which makes communicating across different institutional spaces possible. It also makes it easier to communicate ideas and repertoires for making new claims, and borrowing these from other similar contexts in South Asia and beyond. With greater technological penetration in the urban context, the tiresome critique of elitism and insularity is becoming increasingly redundant as well, with recent gender and student activism showcasing their ability to cut across class and spatial divides to a growing extent.
Will a new generation of progressive civic-rights, gender-rights, and student rights activists become successful in reconfiguring a particularly rigid state-society compact? At this point, the odds facing them appear quite daunting, especially given that entrenched orders of power, whether it’s an autocratic, centralising state, or male privilege, or religious fundamentalism, frequently utilise coercion and violence to resist recalibration. What is certain though is that the pessimism of mainstream politics in Pakistan is being challenged by one march, one movement, and one gathering at a time. And that in itself is some cause for encouragement.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2019