SMOKERS’ CORNER: PERFORMATIVE PROVOCATEURS

Published February 25, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Back in the late 1980s, a bunch of guys and I started to publish a ‘revolutionary’ newsletter. We were all in our early twenties and some of us had also been involved in various movements against the Ziaul Haq dictatorship. The newsletter was started a year after Zia’s demise. We all fancied ourselves as ‘Marxists’.

I was considered to be the most experienced ‘revolutionary’ in the group because I had been jailed twice (1985, 1986). But most folk in the group had never been arrested. In fact, one such chap was the main financier of the newsletter. One afternoon, the mother of our financier just happened to enter the room where we used to gather and write the newsletter. We weren’t there at the time. But we had left behind dozens of empty beer bottles and cigarette butts. She also managed to get hold of the newsletter. She was shocked. Concerned that her son’s ‘useless friends’ were destroying his future, she confronted him. 

The next day, when we reached his house, he told us that we should stop coming to his place. Weeks later, when a friend of mine, the late journalist Irfan Malik, asked me why had I stopped publishing the newsletter, I told him the reason. The next day he handed me an article, saying that I should publish one last issue of the newsletter and put his article in it. 

The article went on and on about the challenges faced by young middle class folk who wanted to bring about change. In the end, Irfan wrote: ‘Agar ammi mana na kartien, tau inquilaab zaroor aata’ [Had mom not stopped us, the revolution would have surely come]. 

‘Simulated subversion’ or ‘designer resistance’ may seem to be revolutionary but is largely staged and very much part of the mainstream ethos that it claims to be subverting

So why am I recalling this tragic story of a revolution that was sabotaged by a mom? Well, lately, one is coming across a lot of ‘revolutionaries’ on social, print and electronic media, who are absolutely sure that they have climbed aboard a wave that will completely drown the ‘establishment’. Not all of these hopefuls are young, mind you. Many among them are middle-aged TV anchors as well. 

One such gentleman, a famous TV anchor serving a large corporate media house, posted a quote by the Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose (d.1945): “Freedoms are not given. They need to be snatched.” Incidentally, this quote was also used by the Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, who is a huge admirer of the Indian prime minister and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. 

This tickled me. As did the surreal spectacle of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Shahbaz Sharif reciting verses from the socialist poet Habib Jalib (in 2013); and in 2012, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) using Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Umeed-i-Sahar in a JI video. All of this can be clubbed together as examples of what is called ‘simulated subversion’, or ‘designer resistance.’ In meaning, more or less, both the terms are one and the same. 

Simulated subversion is about crafting events, texts, products, etc, which may seem to be subversive, but they are largely staged and very much part of the mainstream ethos that they claim to be subverting. For example, our newsletter was a simulation of what we imagined ‘underground’ groups operated like whereas, in reality, we were entirely ‘overground’ and seeking attention from within our own class. 

It made us feel subversive and revolutionary, and maybe even sexy. Had it been about anything a bit more authentic, an angry mom could never have been able to stop the revolution. Same is the case regarding the TV anchor quoting Bose. It was simulated subversion, because there is absolutely no possibility of the anchor throwing away his highly paid job, shun the lifestyle of the privileged class that he is a part of, and then — to paraphrase the Chinese communist ideologue, Mao Zedong — plunge into the sea of common people and swim in it like a fish. 

Bose actually did this. But the TV anchor and Kangana Ranaut used the quote for impact alone, without getting into the details of what the act of snatching freedom actually demands. Also, in both cases, the social media site X was used, which in itself is perhaps the most apt space for demonstrating simulated subversions. 

When Shahbaz Sharif of the centre-right PML-N, and a politician ‘trusted’ by the ‘establishment’, recited verses from a poem by Jalib, he was simulating the subversion of his party’s image of being conservative. JI, a party which was more than glad when Faiz was arrested during the early years of Ziaul Haq’s reactionary dictatorship, was simulating the subversion of Faiz’s words grounded in revolutionary Marxist imagery, and turning them into revolutionary imagery popular among Islamists. 

JI’s simulation in this regard can also suggest that, by 2012, JI had become an entirely irrelevant political entity, searching for some revolutionary traction. Incidentally, at the time, the party’s chief was Syed Munawar Hussain, who had begun his political career as a member of a left-wing student organisation, but who had then switched sides to join the student wing of the JI. Maybe using Faiz for the video was his idea? 

‘Designer resistance’ is almost similar to ‘simulated subversion’ but, in the former’s case, the simulation of subversion is allowed by the subverted. In the 2009 book Authenticity and the Cultural Politics of Work, the academic Peter Fleming wrote that, in various fields, those in control “preempt serious criticism by encouraging resistance of an expressive and aesthetic kind.” This way they can control the criticism. 

For example, when the Musharraf regime was on its last legs in 2007, the military establishment ‘allowed’ the media to openly criticise the struggling general in the name of democracy. Once the general was gone, the establishment then encouraged and manoeuvred the media’s attention towards the criticism of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PML-N in the name of freedom of speech. 

However, the ‘message’ now was that Musharraf was an individual and the military was an institution that dare not be spoken about in the same breath as political parties were. What’s more, the establishment fostered the ‘rise’ of Imran Khan, who became a ubiquitous televised manifestation or simulated subversion of the ‘corruption’ of the PPP and the PML-N. 

Recently, the current military establishment allowed the ‘anti-establishment’ sentiment prevailing on social media and TV channels, as a way to allow the venting out of this sentiment, after the manner in which the recent elections became controversial. Yet, this is designer resistance, which can be controlled and tuned out at will. But everyone is being allowed to feel as if they’re on the side of the ‘truth’.

Outside the media and X, though, actual subversion, which one saw in May last year, will always be handled in the most aggressive manner. At least 90 percent of the prominent men and women posing as revolutionaries on TV and X these days, will not be found among those who again feel the need to go out to ‘snatch freedom.’ Simulation alone is their strongest suit.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 25th, 2024

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