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History will absolve us

November 30, 2012

OVER the past decade or so, hundreds of millions of human beings have had their lives transformed by new information technologies.

This process will only intensify in the coming decades. What has been called the information revolution will surely go down in modern history as a series of events no less profound than the industrial and scientific revolutions.

It is in the nature of such deep-seated social transformations that widespread awareness of their significance comes long after the fact. This is despite the fact that daily practice has metamorphosed with the introduction of cellular phones, tablets and the like.

The meaning of time and space may have been completely altered but we have quickly forgotten how different it all was until the very recent past.

Yet even if we are not fully conscious of it, human society is, in a manner of speaking, a constant work in progress (pun intended). That is to say the material comforts and attendant values taken for granted in any particular historical epoch were not so in the previous one.

Put differently, what eventually becomes intellectual, political and social common sense often only becomes so because of the efforts of those who are willing to swim against the tide.

Albert Einstein is today widely considered the most influential scientist of the modern era. Yet Einstein’s ideas — including his famous theory of relativity — represented a complete revolt against the existing scientific order when they first saw the light of day. By fundamentally challenging the foundations of Newtonian physics Einstein expanded the horizons of scientific knowledge.

Universal franchise was not institutionalised in most Western societies until well into the 20th century. More generally, cultural norms vis-à-vis the ‘proper’ social status of women and the inherent inferiority of coloured races remained rigidly in place until relatively recently.

Most ordinary people in Western societies now take for granted that women and coloured people are as much citizens as the average white man. The reality is that a great struggle had to be waged before these basic freedoms could be enjoyed by all.

Of course in countries such as ours equal citizenship rights remain a pipe dream. A majority of women, low castes and the religious ‘other’ are still subject to oppressive social convention, let alone recognised as rights-bearing citizens by the state.

Yet things have changed, and continue to do so. It is not by chance that there are so many old propertied elites that constantly lament how much better things were before ‘modern’ ideas and ways of being became commonplace.

Traditional landed families, for instance, no longer enjoy the unqualified subservience of economic and social dependants. This is in large part because of objective economic changes that have changed relations of production, but also because of struggle on the part of subordinate classes and caste groups as well as their political and social allies.

What I want to emphasise is that these struggles always take place in the face of enormous resistance, not only on the part of the elites that stand to lose out from social change, but across a wide cross-section of society. Indeed, the biggest impediment to change is the common sense notions that we tend to assume are unquestionable.

Today more and more Pakistanis are being forced to accept that the romanticised idea of ‘jihad’ that has been implanted in our heads since at least the late 1970s is a noose around our collective neck.

This has not happened by chance. Progressives have struggled incessantly against the ideological straitjackets imposed on society by the state, often at great cost.

It is unfortunate that the dangers that so many sane voices have been flagging for four decades have now become uncomfortable and often deadly realities.

There is greater recognition than ever that insistence on a monolithic Pakistani identity bound up with Islam and Urdu has hardly brought us together, and in fact threatens to rip us completely apart (not to mention that such an episode already took place more than 40 years ago).

Many brave people have borne great punishment and public ridicule over a long period of time to convince the rest of us to accept our diverse heritage.

I do not want to overstate the case. The reality is that many hegemonic ideas — including the ones that I have mentioned above — have not been banished to the dustbin of history. The structures of power that have existed in this society have not stayed untouched but neither have they, for the most part, been overhauled.

Class, caste, gender and other forms of oppression remain as entrenched as ever. The military-bureaucratic state apparatus remains the repository of power. The religious establishment continues to victimise those who struggle for freedom of belief. But then the perennial struggle against hegemonic ideas is not just unique to Pakistan. The fact that women and coloured people enjoy something approaching equal citizenship rights in Western societies does not mean that patriarchy and racism have been done away with in these societies.

Decades of tremendous social mobility have not meant that class divisions have gone away: indeed class has been thrust back into the public spotlight by the latest failures of capitalism in the form of the (ongoing) financial crisis.

Having said that, the space for counter-hegemonic ideas in today’s Pakistan is greater than ever before. It is important to recognise this fact and take advantage of it. Courts that have always been lackeys of the military are now keen on proving themselves as an autonomous power.

Media persons renowned for their defence of the establishment’s wrongdoings are trying to reposition themselves in the frontline of the struggle against the establishment. Politicians who have traditionally championed the unitary state are now advocating negotiations with separatists. And so on and so forth.

Much of this might well be posturing, but does suggest significant changes in public discourse and sentiment. It will be a while yet before substantive structural changes can be effected in Pakistani state and society, at least of the kind that many of us would want.

Yet if enough of us continue to tread the path less travelled, we will eventually get there. History, to paraphrase arguably the most durable revolutionary of the modern era, Fidel Castro, will absolve us.

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