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The highs and lows

January 24, 2013

ENOUGH time has now passed for a reasonably dispassionate analysis of the series of events that led to the imposition of governor’s rule in Balochistan to become possible.

While just about every progressive in this country — and beyond — stood with the Hazaras of Quetta throughout their sordid ordeal, it was difficult for many to stomach the demand that the army take control of the city (quite aside from the fact that generals were already the de facto rulers of Quetta).

Perhaps even more glaring was the manner in which the Baloch insurgency was completely absent from the larger narrative of Balochistan’s ‘law and order’ crisis. A relatively uninformed observer could be forgiven for concluding that the prevailing political dispensation was a threat only to the life and property of Hazara Shias.

This is not the first time that the grief of a community of sufferers in this land of the pure has been instrumentalised by the media. Nor will it be the last. It is also not for the first time that divisions have been fomented within the ranks of the oppressed — in this case the Baloch and Hazara — so as to serve the needs of the powers-that-be.

It would be too easy, however, to lay all the blame for such portrayal of events only at the door of the corporate media or the seemingly omnipotent establishment. A certain degree of introspection is necessary if we are to move beyond the highly functional public discourse that is both the cause and consequence of exploitation of the people.

A majority of us are unthinking consumers of the information that is disseminated through the media, in the formal educational realm, at our workplaces, via religious intermediaries and so on.

In rural areas and small towns more of the information in the public sphere is ‘local’ in nature, which explains the relative lack of interest with ‘high’ politics and culture. The urban public, on the other hand, has become obsessed with the shenanigans of the so-called ‘great men’.

Neither the rural public’s disconnect with the intrigues and conspiracies taking place in capitals and military headquarters, nor the urban public’s addiction to them is significant in itself. What is important is how ‘high’ politics (and culture) has been surgically separated from the ‘low’. Of course a divide has always existed between the two, but something distinctive has happened over the past two decades.

The Zia regime initiated a process of delinking wider political debates from what eventually became a thoroughly localised and personalised thana, katcheri and service delivery regime. This process has intensified over time such that it is now taken almost for granted that ‘high’ politics has nothing to do with the lives of real people. One would think that there would have been a challenge to this discursive and practical shift. Unfortunately, however, the emergence of this divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics has been accompanied by a steady alienation of the intelligentsia from the daily trials, tribulations and, it must be said, celebrations of ordinary people.

An overwhelming majority of purportedly ‘public intellectuals’ make no attempt to link the opaque world of ‘high’ politics with realities on the ground in villages, small towns and marginal spaces within our metropolitan centres.

It is thus that the vast majority of us are largely ignorant about our own society. We rely on caricatures just as much as the ‘anti-Pakistan’ lobbies in the rest of the world that we love to hate.

To return to the Balochistan example: how many of us are aware about the geography and ethnic composition of the province?

Has anyone bothered to investigate what classes exist in Baloch society other than those timeless sardars that we cannot seem to get enough of?

What are the livelihood sources of these various classes? What have been the historical modes of interaction between the Baloch, Pakhtun, Hazara and so-called ‘settler’ communities in Balochistan?

These questions — and similar sociological interrogations in other parts of the country — no longer seem to concern the intelligentsia. In an erstwhile era there was much greater emphasis on understanding processes of change and continuity in a disaggregated manner and yet linking these processes to the ‘high’ politics and culture of the rich and powerful.

Such intellectual curiosity necessarily fuelled progressive political initiatives as well. At the very least, the kind of selective, sensational — and eminently divisive — depiction of events that the corporate media and powers-that-be always prefer could be challenged by alternative narratives in which the diverse concerns of real people could be brought together in opposition to the exclusionary politics (and culture) of dominant forces.

Public intellectuals are defined by a willingness to set their own agendas in the interests of the greater common good. In the present climate, those who are given the name only react to events.

The sad truth is that the Hazara Shia community has been at the receiving end of grievous injustice for the best part of a decade. But there was neither an attempt prior to the recent protests nor, more damningly, after the protests ended, to think deeply about the links between the ‘low’ politics of Balochistan and the ‘high’ politics of the establishment and external powers, let alone devise long-term strategies to end the wanton killing in Quetta and, arguably more important, in the neglected peripheries of the province.

Both the intelligentsia and most of the unthinking consumers of ‘objective’ information circulating in the public sphere continue to react defensively to meaningful attempts to understand the complexity of Pakistani society, as well as the contradictions of ‘high’ politics.

Certain taboos have definitely been breached, but there are still more than enough urbanites that are neither concerned with the ‘low’ politics and culture of most Pakistanis nor willing to think beyond traditional statist categories such as ‘Islam/Pakistan and its enemies’.

This means that a growing number of otherwise well-to-do and educated Pakistanis continue to harbour insular and retrogressive ideas, in spite of their exposure to the so-called global village.

However, even those who consider themselves progressive typically believe that the struggle against the ‘other’ is waged only in the realm of ‘high’ politics and culture. Whereas in fact it must be waged at all levels, within the institutions of the state, and against them in the trenches of our class-divided, gendered and heavily ethnicised society.

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