One of the most surreal things on display these days — especially on social media — is former military men, certain politicians, some journalists and supporters of a particular party spouting revolutionary rhetoric that was once associated with Cold War leftists.
The surreal bit is that, at least till April 2022, most of these men and women had established themselves as ‘proud patriots’ who wholeheartedly supported the powerful military establishment (ME).
They are almost always either members of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) or its unabashed supporters. This is not surprising, because not only had the ME aided Khan’s rise to power but, during the first few years of his rule, it had also shielded him from his political opponents. Dozens of TV journalists and hundreds of young men and women were instructed by the ME on how to engage in the so-called ‘Fifth Generation Warfare’, or a war conducted primarily through non-kinetic military action, such as social engineering, misinformation, cyber attacks, etc.
Apparently the primary enemy in this regard was India. But very quickly, the weapons of this warfare were turned against Khan’s opponents in politics and in the media. Many retired military officers also joined in. Through TV talk shows and popular social media sites, anti-PTI politicians and journalists who refused to toe the ME’s line were mercilessly demonised and harassed.
The ousting of Imran Khan has led to his dedicated cadre of loyal followers — comprising of party members, journalists and retired military men, among others — engaging in a deeply ironic ‘anti-establishment’ campaign
This is still going on. But the difference now is that the ME has also become a target. It is being accused by its former ‘warriors’ of not helping Khan who, presumably, is the country’s ’most popular’, incorruptible and sincere politician. The question being asked is, ‘Why did the ME not intervene when a ‘corrupt’ group of politicians was conspiring (allegedly with the US) to oust Khan from power?’ This, of course, is a rhetorical question with a built-in accusation: ME too was part of the ‘conspiracy’.
Therefore, quite suddenly, many PTI members, Khan’s supporters in the electronic media and certain former military men, have become ‘anti-establishment’. These also include numerous glitzy ‘showbiz’ personalities and the so-called ‘WhatsApp uncles and aunts’. But have they really become anti-establishment? Or is this just a knee-jerk reaction to being dumped?
Is it more about what is often called the ‘jilted lover syndrome’, when a person, after being discarded by a lover, responds by creating dramatic commotion?
It would require a lot to take seriously men and women who have started to sound like fiery anti-establishment revolutionaries but who, till April last year, were quite unabashedly applauding the many controversial and even reactionary actions by the Khan regime. Some had remained blissfully ignorant while others had made it their job to rationalise every such action.
But now, some are passionately reciting the poetry of the leftist Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the revolutionary poet Habib Jalib. What’s more, late last year, Ijazul Haq, the pro-Khan politician and son of the Islamist military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq, tweeted a quote from the founder of communism, Karl Marx. Also, only recently, a retired general who had been an active mouthpiece of the ME announced that he was willing to do anything to fight for Khan’s democratic rights.
The oddity of all this is in the irony that a majority of these men and women are very much part of a bourgeois elite. The oddity is also in their naïveté about the fact that, for example, reciting Faiz or Jalib in this day and age is as dangerous as singing a harmless pop song. When one does this now, they actually become caricatures of revolutionaries of a bygone age.
Poetry by Faiz or Jalib was actually banned in the 1980s during the Zia dictatorship, and so was the sale of books on Marxism, especially in Urdu. Therefore, in the 1980s, reciting poems by Faiz and Jalib or waving books on Marxism had actually meant something. Today, however, funky songs such as ‘Pasoori’ can share the same stage with Faiz’s poetry without anyone batting an eyelid.
But indeed, being openly anti-ME remains as problematic as it has been for decades. Yet, it is important to know who is behaving this way. Non-Punjabi ethnic nationalists and leftists of yore paid a hefty price for being anti-ME. They were arrested, tortured and sometimes even killed. But a majority of today’s suddenly anti-ME men and women are not only former ME admirers, but largely Punjabi.
If one believes that they have kicked open a door, something that only someone from Punjab’s bourgeois elites could have done, then this is nothing more than wishful thinking. Truth is, if most of them do manage to get back into the good books of the ME, they will return to becoming what they really are. They are still what they were till April 2022. But one can safely doubt that the ME will be willing to welcome them back anytime soon. This is understandable.
All this dramatic ruckus and noise is entirely aimed at getting the ME’s attention. And there’s a large element of fear at play here as well. A 2017 study at Yale University concluded that fear, or feeling threatened, often makes individuals take strongly conservative and even reactionary political positions. But in PTI’s case, a party fearing that its leader will be disqualified or even thrown in jail, haven’t its members and its supporters started to strike ‘revolutionary’ stances instead?
Not really. They are attacking the ME and journalists in a tone which is clearly reflecting panic, fear and anger. PTI has not suddenly turned left and pluralistic. Rather, its original populist persona has increasingly become reactionary, no matter how much it tries to spin its recent outbursts as being revolutionary.
It is fear that is pushing the party further to the right, even though many of its supporters would like to believe that it is moving to the left. This is a case of self-deception, one which has seen many PTI leaders and supporters gallantly (read: foolishly) venture into nihilistic territory.
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2023
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