Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Till the 1980s, there were a couple of bakeries in Karachi’s Saddar area that were famous for their Christmas cakes and hot cross buns. They were particularly popular with the city’s Christian community, which is mostly made up of Catholics, and whose elders had begun to migrate from the Indian state of Goa, mainly from the 19th century onwards. Being one of the most prominent communities in the education sector during the early decades of Pakistan, it was the Christians who largely headed and ran the many schools that the British had built in Karachi. The community’s population was mostly concentrated in the Saddar area.

In the mid-1980s, when I was a student at a college in Saddar, I often used to visit the aforementioned bakeries, especially during Easter and Christmas, when the bakeries would stack their shelves with the most wonderful cakes and hot cross buns.

The owners and workers of the bakeries were all Muslim. Once, in 1986 when, with a few college friends I visited one of our favourite Saddar bakeries just before Easter, an elderly employee, Munawar, laughingly told us that the bakery had been visited by two ‘well-to-do’ men who had asked him why they made Christmas cakes and greeted Christians with “Merry Christmas.”

Munawar said he told them, “because business is business, and a cup of tea is a cup of tea!” This made us laugh. It was a dialogue which the actor Qavi Khan had made famous in a 1970s Urdu film. Munawar used it to mean that they sold Christmas cakes and greeted their Christian clients because it was good for business, and it also helped in maintaining good relations with them.

Contrary to the modernist theories about the connections between class and religiosity, it’s the upper and middle classes in South Asia that have become the standard-bearers for religious exhibitionism

The Muslim employees of the bakeries were not residents of Saddar. Most of them came from lower-middle and working class areas of the city. Maybe this is why Munawar made sure to tell us that the men who weren’t happy with what he was doing were ‘well-to-do.’

Recently, two bakeries in Karachi, both situated in the city’s high-income areas and owned by ‘well-to-do’ folk, were reported to have refused to write ‘Merry Christmas’ on their cakes. When called out on social media, owners of one of the bakeries explained that it was an individual act on the part of an employee — even though, a similar episode had taken place at the same bakery in 2018. The other bakery is based out of a bungalow, owned by a well-to-do person.

Read: 10 Karachi bakeries selling Christmas cakes and catering to anyone with a sweet tooth

So, why would educated, ‘modern’ folk have a problem with greeting Merry Christmas, as opposed to working class men such as Munawar? This is an important question. The answer can turn the understanding of class and religiosity on its head. In a 2004 study, Harvard sociologists Pipa Norris and Richard Inglehart posited that the poor are nearly twice more religious than the rich. But the Indian historian Meera Nanda thinks otherwise.

In her book The God Market, Nanda writes that, in South Asia, exhibitions of excessive religiosity are more common in upper and middle class segments. Norris and Inglehart had simply reinforced a long-held ‘modernist’ theory, according to which education and economic prosperity mitigates religiosity and relegates it to the private sphere.

But in today’s so-called ‘post-secular age,’ the concept of secularism has been substantially flexed to allow public and political exhibitions of religiosity, more than it was 35 or so years ago. Hence, there is increasing evidence (at least in South Asia) that middle and upper income groups are more active in this respect than the classes below. According to Nanda, the reasons are economic.

She writes that the 1980s’ economic liberalisation in societies whose economics had been heavily regulated and centralised, produced a curious phenomenon: as economic regulations by the state and governments loosened, deregulated economic activities merged with religious activities. This may be because economic regulation, and even so-called mixed economies, were perceived as being ‘socialist.’ This did not sit well with high and middle income groups in India and Pakistan, and nor with the religious outfits who denounced them as being anti-religion.

Just before the 1970 elections in Pakistan, the Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) castigated the ‘socialism’ of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for being ‘atheistic.’ The fact is, the PPP was really only proposing a mixed economic system. JI then went on to claim that the land reforms that some ‘leftist’ parties were suggesting were against the dictates of Islam.

Economic regulation, and the kind of economics it produced, began to be seen by some as poised against the interests of the middle and higher classes. And since some of the earliest political opponents of these economics were Islamist parties in Pakistan — and Hindu nationalist groups in India — they began to be facilitated by prosperous traders and industrialists.

During the 1977 movement against the first PPP regime, industrialists and traders heavily financed the protests, especially the religious parties that were at the forefront of the movement. The late political scientist Khalid B. Sayeed, in his 1980 book The Nature and Direction of Change, writes that the protests were mostly led by the middle classes, the ‘petit bourgeoisie’ and traders.

Whereas, on the one hand, the ‘well-to-do’ saw the economic benefits of facilitating the growth of the religious parties, on the other, the religious parties took this opportunity to influence the religious disposition of the upper and middle classes. There were economic benefits for both in this. That’s why, by the 1990s, newer players jumped in, evangelists catering almost exclusively to the ‘well-to-do.’

Consequently, many beneficiaries of a now-deregulated economy became overtly exhibitionistic about their faith. Even lifestyle liberals among them did not hide their sympathy for political conservatism and Islamist points of view.

In India, the right-wing BJP got an overwhelming mandate in the elections from the country’s middle-income groups. The party also has burgeoning relations with some of India’s wealthiest entrepreneurs. The same was the case with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and, subsequently, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in Pakistan. PTI signalled neoliberal economic policies, but peddled them as corruption-free economics that would erase the ‘elites.’ The party also usurped the rhetoric of the religious parties. The party became the embodiment of the economic marriage between the higher/middle-income groups and religious outfits.

According to the seminal modernisation theories, the upper and middle classes were expected to adopt and proliferate progressive currents in politics and the polity. But these classes, in South Asia, may now have become uncanny patrons of religious radicalisation.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 2nd, 2022

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