The street speaks

Published May 12, 2023
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

PAKISTAN’S game of thrones continues to prove that truth is stranger than fiction. After 48 hours of unrest following Imran Khan’s forcible arrest by Rangers personnel on the premises of the Islamabad High Court, the Supreme Court declared that he was detained illegally and instructed him to re-appear at the IHC.

Unlike many other former blue-eyed boys of the establishment who have been discarded after their use value ends, Imran Khan is proving far more difficult to ditch for the current top brass: he clearly enjoys support within the superior judiciary, if not the military itself. In short, the once omnipotent establishment has created a Frankenstein that it cannot fully control.

For its part, the PDM government has resorted to the usual playbook, responding to the significant protests after Imran Khan’s arrest by ordering curbs on the media and defending repression against ‘miscreants’. No matter how short our collective memories may be, we should not forget that the Shahbaz Sharif-led government is comprised of those parties and politicians who were depicting themselves as the anti-establishment vanguard not so long ago.

The government has lambasted the violent protests; the misdirected rage on the street confirms that many demonstrators are indeed acting like Imran’s cult followers. But reading what has just transpired in binary terms, whereby PDM supporters are civilised and PTI supporters are troublemakers, is neither accurate nor tells us about where we are headed.

Urbanised youth are big players.

If the PTI leadership — Imran included — has neither the will nor the capacity to build a coherent and sustainable popular movement to transform our militarised political-economic order, it is just as true that a year of establishment backing for the PDM/PPP has made this country’s working masses, particularly the youth, even more despondent about their future. No matter what happens to the PTI or PDM, the politics of the street is only beginning.

  1. Urbanised youth are big players: The establishment’s patronage of Imran was based on its calculation that a younger generation of mainland Pakistanis bred on insular Pakistani nationalism would actively support a ‘third force’ beyond the usual political suspects. Our strategic masterminds empowered newly politicised young people to shape political discourse in digital spaces by propagating ridiculous ideas like ‘fifth generation war’. And, in a classic case of blowback, it is precisely this youthful demographic, particularly in metropolitan Pakistan, that has turned on the generals it believes are responsible for removing Imran from power.

The tech-savvy, youthful political subject is now a big player in Pakistani politics. While those from higher class backgrounds exercise the most influence within the PTI, it is worth being cognizant that those of decidedly more humble means have appeared to be the most mobilised foot soldiers in the current wave of protest.

  1. The peripheries & working class also count: Mainstream parties, corporate media and establishment-sponsored intelligentsia may not care, but it is in the ethnic peripheries and amongst large segments of the working class that disaffection is most pronounced. It is noteworthy that the protests are concentrated in Punjab, parts of KP and major metropolitan centres like Karachi. Most of Sindh and Balochistan is quiet, as are rural peripheries on the whole. But young people live here too. They face the wrath of state violence and war, cope with various forms of societal oppression and face the worst consequences of a tanking economy.

PTI supporters comparing the repression they are facing to East Pakistan’s secession would do well to acknowledge that the IK-Bajwa hybrid regime tried to crush PTM, engaged in wanton disappearances of Baloch youth, and sucked up to Malik Riaz and the IMF. Pakistan’s political mainstream can only start to change if and when the relatively better off young people in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, who claim to be protesting for genuine democratisation, close ranks with the wretched of the earth.

  1. We are running out of time: One does not need to be an ‘expert’ to understand that Pakistan’s existing political economy is simply unsustainable. Land grabbers run riot, the national security apparatus enjoys a separate existence to ‘bloody civilians’, our economy is propped up by imperialist powers and unaccountable creditors, and hateful polarisation is increasing. But there is one crisis which trumps all others, and that is the long-term prognosis of ecological meltdown — a crisis that our existing developmental regime is simply accelerating.

Imran Khan, the Sharifs, other big political families, powerful mullahs, and the generals and judges in whose name this game is played couldn’t care less about the millions who will be saddled with what is to come. Our youthful majority must start thinking and doing for itself.

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

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2023

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