A riotous future?

Published March 31, 2023
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

AS our judges, generals and ruling-class politicians continue to engage in myopic, factional battles for money and power, the teeming masses are increasingly restive.

Every day there are new reports of dozens being injuredsome even dying — in stampedes during distributions of free/subsidised flour. Suicide-murders of entire families who have lost hope of securing livelihoods are no longer exceptional events.

Acute economic hardship has also reportedly led to a marked decrease in charitable donations during the month of Ramazan.

The continuing economic squeeze is only one of our immediate challenges. Irsa, the inter-provincial body which regulates water flows through the Indus Basin, has warned of “massive water shortages” in the months ahead. Let us recall that the affectees of last summer’s floods, forgotten by the mainstream, are still struggling to meet basic needs.

The projected scarcity of water as the heat returns portends acute tension — and potential conflict — between Punjab and Sindh. One is scarcely able to imagine the human impact at a molecular scale.

Shortages of food, water and other basic needs primarily affect the toiling classes, and, as things stand, the latter are more likely to resort to violent reactions than cooperation. It is noteworthy that the mass of working people has not already come out in spontaneous reaction to the decline in basic living standards due to relentless inflation, which shows no signs of relenting.

Without triggering alarm, it is necessary to consider how the politics of hate at the highest echelons of power — within state institutions and across party lines — may signal an emergent trend in the nooks and crannies of society.

Put differently, we face the prospect of a riotous future that engulfs large segments of the population. If this happens, it will at least partially be explained by the complete lack of leadership within the political mainstream, which remains exclusively interested in acquiring and keeping power rather than articulating a viable hegemonic project in times to come.

The current polarisations can be expected to intensify.

Commentary on these pages has noted that mainstream politics has more or less been reduced to whether one is pro or anti-Imran Khan. I would add that the polarisations around Imran Khan’s person are only like to intensify.

We have been here before: recall the PNA movement whose singular raison d’être by the time of the 1977 coup was the deposal of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Many who opposed Bhutto later admitted their regret because their insistence on his removal paved the way for Gen Ziaul Haq’s 11-year dictatorship.

I am less interested in Imran Khan’s fate and far more in the societal polarisations that come to the fore most obviously in the actions of both Khan’s supporters and his fiercest opponents. When juxtaposed with Pakistan’s major structural crises — of economy, ecology, demography and identity — these polarisations can be expected to intensify and even metamorphose into something far bigger.

Lest anyone is living under a rock, we must face up to the fact that most of our population is young, the economy cannot remain on life support forever, large parts of the country are projected to be unliveable in a few short decades, and there is still no obvious glue that binds the various identities that constitute Pakistan’s body politic.

Hateful and violent political vehicles have mobilised significant numbers of working people due to structural conflicts and destructive state policies in the past: religiously inspired militant groups like the Taliban/TLP and ethnicised parties like the MQM are prominent examples.

But the scale of the challenges we face in the medium and long-term future is altogether different.

Seen as a historical phenomenon across many parts of the world, riots do not necessarily imply societal degeneration. They can be and have been the harbingers of progressive social transformation.

They are, however, more likely to be reactionary and hateful. Religious rioting in British India and after the emergence of the independent states of South Asia, for instance, has almost never proven to be a harbinger of pro-people change.

Either way, any sober prognosis of Pakistan’s medium and long-term future demands attention to the possibilities of the proverbial riot. If things carry on as they are at the moment, the Pakistan of the future will feature a ruling class living in highly securitised gated communities with energy and other supplies to sustain itself.

The majority of people will be on the outside, living on the ecological ruins of our peculiar brand of hateful capitalism, rioting regularly amongst themselves for basic needs. This dystopic imaginary will only be prevented from coming to fruition if enough of us pay heed to the warning signs sooner rather than later.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2023

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