MASHAL Khan was murdered by a mob of his fellow students six years ago. His loved ones still run from pillar to post seeking justice. But business as usual continues in the land of the pure, an ostensibly watershed moment banished to virtual oblivion.
The same judges that periodically summon Mashal’s father, Iqbal Lala, for hearings are seen to be embroiled in a no-holds-barred fight amongst themselves. Religious clergymen and zealous mediapersons are busy calling for public lynchings of alleged blasphemers. And our exceedingly young population is rootless, prone to hateful herd behaviour and extreme alienation.
The sense of déjà vu does not stop there. Lately, officialdom has pronounced that ‘terrorism’ is back and that a new spate of military operations is required to snuff out the threat at source. For the best part of the 2000s and 2010s, metropolitan Pakistan was sold stories of unerring victories against proverbial ‘terrorists’ in the ‘badlands’ of Waziristan and other border zones with Afghanistan. Critical voices were crying hoarse to be heard above the propaganda then, just as they are now.
Lest anyone has forgotten, Mashal not only challenged the reactionary ideologies of the religious right, cultivated for decades by the security establishment and its lackeys in the educational, media and political mainstream, his worldview also centred on the class warfare waged by landed aristocrats, big business and civil/military personnel against the wretched of the earth in war-ravaged KP and across Pakistan at large. His struggle encompassed women, girls and other oppressed genders, and demanded liberation from patriarchs in the home, seminary and security establishment. Mashal unapologetically aligned himself with the best anti-imperialist humanist traditions of the modern era.
Voices like Mashal’s are the real threat to a rotten status quo.
Understood in their totality, voices like Mashal’s are the real threat to a rotten status quo that is degenerating with each passing day. As the political imbroglio confirms, there is nothing necessarily ‘democratic’ about judges superficially invoking the ‘rule of law’, or elected politicians defending ‘parliamentary supremacy’ whilst refusing to hold elections. More young people than ever before see through the establishment’s perennial claims to being ‘saviours of the nation’, but the rot doesn’t stop there.
Take India as a cautionary tale. On the surface, it remains the world’s ‘largest’ democracy. With the exception of Indira Gandhi’s two-year emergency, Indians have elected their leaders without interruption. Its parliamentary democracy has not been weighed down by decades of de facto khaki rule. Indian judges, while not angelic, have generally been less politicised than our judiciary.
But India today stands on the cusp of a majoritarian tyranny animated by domestic and global business elites, an increasingly reactionary urban middle class, and a deeply entrenched RSS intellectual vanguard. Modi’s BJP has been able to deepen its political and social base through ‘democratic’ institutions, with Western ‘liberals’ often acting as cheerleaders. And this in a country where genuinely leftist political forces have enjoyed far greater traction in society compared to Pakistan. Indeed, it is not only ‘democratic’ India which shows us how the far right feasts on class, masculine and other forms of rage that are symptomatic of contemporary capitalism. If India has its Modi, then the US has Trump, Turkey has Erdogan, Brazil has Bolsanaro, and Pakistan has Imran Khan.
There are more examples, and the point is not to suggest that they are all exactly the same. What needs to be acknowledged is that hateful right-wing ideology has gained enormous ground in the current conjuncture, at least partly because the political and intellectual mainstream is silent on class and other material deprivations that are leaving newer generations of working people worse off than previous ones.
It is this gap that progressives like Mashal have always tried to fill. There can be no wishing away the ideologies of the right until and unless there is a rooted politics within working class communities to displace it. This is what too many ‘democrats’ here refuse to acknowledge, mostly because their class interests are not consistent with a genuinely anti-status quo politics.
There is nothing democratic about protecting the interests of the Malik Riaz’s of the world whilst sanctioning dispossession of workers and peasants. There is nothing liberal about the permanent militarisation of Baloch, Pakhtun and other peripheries. And there is no respite from our economic crisis if we do not demand accountability of donors and imperialist countries alongside our own propertied classes. If only our ‘democrats’ took out a leaf out of Mashal’s book, he would not still be waiting for justice.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2023