State’s failure

Published June 24, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

A THRONG of men encircle leaping flames. They are energised, holding mobile phones aloft to capture the moment. By now, we all know what they are filming, and we are shocked, sickened, scared. Those who feel distanced from this horrific violence — immune by virtue of their class privilege or majority status — should look again. This is what state failure looks like, and it affects us all.

Mob violence is ascendant in Pakistan. And when mobs gather to beat, break and burn, the public focus is on how the state failed in the moment; how it failed to anticipate the violence, defuse the situation or use law-enforcement tactics to control the mob. Police officials are re-posted and inquiries launched, but often to no avail. And so we also recognise impunity as a form of state failure — from Joseph Colony to Jaranwala, none that have joined mobs have faced the legal consequences.

What we have not yet fully acknowledged is that state failure is evident not only in the state’s inability to control and punish mobs, but in their very existence. The truth is the mob exists because the state is weak and compromised enough that it needs the mob to survive, to perpetuate its power. In her work on Vigilantes and the State, Rebecca Tapscott argues that in low-capacity states, particularly where militaries have dominated, state institutions often collaborate with ‘informal’ and ‘non-state violent groups’ to enforce their writ.

The mob exists because the state is compromised.

In Pakistan, the mob is an extension of a semi-authoritarian, hyper-nationalist security state that has peddled religio-national narratives as a way to ensure political control. The entrenchment of these narratives has required the cultivation of proxies, including violent extremist groups. It has also required the introduction of flawed legislation that is consistently and perversely abused at the expense of the most vulnerable, our religious minorities and other marginalised groups. At the grassroots level, these security policies and laws manifest as the mob.

When mobs in Pakistan mobilise, they do so confident in the knowledge that they are on the side of might, that they are enacting the secret desires of the powers that be, that they are finishing what the state started. The problem with such complicity is that it soon becomes co-option. As the weak response to Madyan and countless similar atrocities have shown, after a point, it’s the mob that’s in control.

We are not alone in this devolution. Across the border, Hindutva vigilantes emboldened by the BJP’s political agenda have carried out lynchings on absurd pretences such as ‘love jihad’ and the treatment of cows. But the prevalence of a problem does not temper its severity.

Indeed, when the mob is an extension of the state, it is normalised, and mob violence becomes a rational means to an end. Think of Karachi, where the police have had to rescue robbers from lynch mobs intent on doling out their own version of justice. Or consider the chaos in Peshawar lately, where a mob took control of a grid station to protest loadshedding. This mob was duly egged on by a parliamentarian who has clearly internalised the fact that where the mob goes, there lies power.

What is to be done? Too often, the focus is on the quick fix to manage the state’s failure in the moment. And so there is lip service to police trainings and judicial reviews of incidents. The more ambitious among us call for a strengthening of the democratic system to ensure better accountability and, ultimately (hopefully) deterrence.

But strengthening democracy is no easy task. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, “before you can have a democracy, you must have a state, but to have a legitimate and therefore durable state you must have dem­ocracy”. Mad­y­­an highlights how advanced our st­­a­­te failure is, and so, how much more challenging the task of building an inclusive democratic system.

We can achieve little until we shift our understanding of mob violence as a moment of madness in which state control failed to the recognition of mob violence as an extension of the state. To address the problem, we must diagnose it, and this will require a full reckoning with our political history, a rewriting of our national policies and narratives, starting with a review of the public curriculum.

To his credit, Ahsan Iqbal started on this path by recommending to parliament that a committee including ulema be formed to consider how religion is being weaponised in Pakistan.

His remarks were shushed and side-lined by the speaker, emphasising how the state and the mob are conflated. It is difficult to confront and disperse a mob — especially one rallied over decades, even centuries, of postcolonial history. But we must find a way, starting with seeing the mob for what it is: our state, and so by extension, us.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2024

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