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A different menu

October 31, 2011


IN the polarisation of Pakistan’s political and social landscape, the fault lines have been drawn between the ‘liberal fascists’ and the ‘ghairat brigade’. The former stand for a secular, democratic and tolerant Pakistan that engages with the world through trade and innovation, rather than terrorism.

The latter staunchly defend the nation’s honour and sovereignty against dubious threats, confuse religiosity and patriotism, propagate hate and intolerance and suffer a strong persecution complex. It is Pakistan’s tragedy that the ghairat brigade has captured the national imagination at the expense of the liberal fascists.

But the fight for Pakistan’s soul is not yet over, as demonstrated by the fact that earlier this month the liberal fascists got a national anthem.

Beyghairat Brigade’s Aalu Anday, the overnight YouTube sensation, has given new life to reason. A song with biting satirical lyrics by two 20-somethings and a teenager has achieved in 180 seconds what the so-called liberal fascists have been trying to do through endless column inches. Within days of its online release, the song’s video received tens of thousands of hits. It has since been extensively blogged, tweeted, aired on television, and yes, even ‘liked’ on Facebook.

The song’s appeal is obvious: what begins with a high schooler’s whining about his mother’s cooking quickly evolves into a sharp critique of Pakistan’s socio-political landscape. Through the song’s lyrics, and in placards displayed by the band members in the video, Beyghairat Brigade lashes out against army intervention in civilian politics, corruption, the persecution of the Ahmadi community, Zia’s Islamisation policies and misplaced public sympathy for terrorists and murderers such as Ajmal Kasab and Mumtaz Qadri.

Not surprisingly, the youngsters have been lauded for their daring: unlike popular political satire on private channels that harangues civilian politicians through buffoonery and slapstick, the brigade’s lyrics implicate the Pakistan Army, intelligence agencies and national security policy — a no-go zone for journalists and satirists.

For speaking truth to power, the Beyghairat Brigade has been hailed in the blogosphere and mainstream media alike. The trio has been described as Pakistan’s last hope and a symbol of national endurance; they have been hailed for their political incorrectness and for giving voice to a scared people.

But seen another way, Aalu Anday signals a worrying trend for Pakistan’s progressive, democratic and secular-minded forces. Although it is being broadcast on television, the song is primarily an online sensation. The boys sing in Punjabi, but their most strident placards are penned in English. The brigade’s views are being expressed in a music video, not a nightly television news show, a political rally, or a cleric’s pulpit. For all its bravery and brilliance, the video is ultimately a marginalised media artefact.

Many fans of the Beyghairat Brigade have interpreted the establishment and ghairat brigade’s silence over the video as a sign of shamefacedness or defeat. More likely, they can’t be bothered to comment because they realise that the video is limited in its reach and will only ever preach to the choir.

As such, the video is circulating in the same space long afforded to the English-language press, which has always been more critical of government policy than its vernacular counterparts because the powers that be know that it has constrained impact on the street. At a time when the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority is cracking down on private channels for airing political satire, the fact that the Beyghairat Brigade is thriving does not mean that it has won the argument, rather that its ability to make a point is seen as non-threatening.

There is a discomfiting role reversal manifest in the video’s online success. There was a time when that marginal mediated space was reserved for people who espoused the views that the ghairat brigade has proudly embraced. Conspiracy theories that are now broadcast on television and screeched from mosque pulpits were once the preserve of the hard-to-find websites of terrorist organisations and hand-distributed pamphlets of militant groups. Not so long ago, it was the audience for extremist rhetoric that counted in the thousands rather than the millions.

How can the liberal fascists now celebrate at finding their political viewpoints confined to that marginal space? That which is considered subversive is necessarily sidelined. The fact that the Beyghairat Brigade’s rational, critical perspective on Pakistani politics is seen as transgressive is thus a cause of worry, not celebration.

But it would be too pessimistic to denounce the video as a case of too little, too late. The appeal of Aalu Anday does point to the heartening ability of Pakistan’s youth to engage thoughtfully with political rhetoric, and with each other. And here’s where the real hope inspired by this video lies.

Surveys conducted by the British Council, the Centre for Civic Education and the Herald in 2009 found that Pakistani youth, who comprise 59 per cent of the country’s population, were thoroughly disillusioned with politics. According to the surveys, nearly half the youth do not vote, 60 per cent express more confidence in the military than civilian governance, less than 10 per cent support government institutions, 78 per cent are categorical in their rejection of active politics and less than one per cent see an active political role as desirable.

Pakistan’s tumultuous politics in recent months have started to rise the country’s disaffected youth from their slumber. But for too long, Zaid Hamid’s misguided adherents have hijacked the role of the politically engaged Pakistani youth. The Beyghairat Brigade offers an important counterpoint to that crowd, and can therefore help initiate an important debate among Pakistan’s future stakeholders.

Hopefully, with more songs like Aalu Anday on the menu, Pakistan’s next generation will develop a palette for politics and have the courage to order something different.

The writer is a freelance journalist.