Published Apr 26, 2018 06:52am

The right to public spaces

I.A. Rehman

SOON after the battle of Mochi Gate ground concluded amicably, a sizeable Lahore audience was treated to a scintillating performance by Theatre Wallay, a group of Islamabad-based theatre enthusiasts who have been looking at contemporary reality. The theme was dwindling access to public spaces. 

In a 60-minute programme, only a few instances of encroachment on the people’s right of access to public spaces could be discussed, but that was sufficient to set the citizens thinking about the erosion of their freedoms.

For instance, the first episode dealt with the freedom to enjoy a cricket match in which the players included foreign stars. The joys of watching such matches in the past were recalled, when the people didn’t throng to the stadia only to see some of the players in the act of bowling and another set of players in the act of batting — the ball and the bat and the stumps were more clearly visible on the TV screen at home. Going to watch cricket was a social event. One liked to enjoy the freedom of movement and the freedom to partake of traditional snacks and the freedom to shout to one’s heart’s content. 

The denial of right to public spaces will inexorably lead to ghettoisation of the people.

The situation now was that getting to the stadium was a hassle. Those who did not go to the stadium suffered greater hardships as roads were blocked, traffic was jammed at many points and open spaces were converted into parking lots.

One sat glued to a seat like a prisoner, everybody looking at everybody else with suspicion, and the only shout permitted was “Jeetay ga, jeetay ga, Pakistan jeetay ga”.

People faced similar denial of freedom of movement when thoroughfares were occupied for dharnas, especially by those claiming divine sanction.

The restrictions on the people’s freedoms are justified as necessary in their own interest, as an unavoidable price for security. However sound this explanation may be, the effect of restrictions on the use of public spaces on the psyche of the people

cannot be ignored. The toll of living in a state of fear is quite heavy. The harmful effects on the minds and bodies of citizens and on interpersonal relations ought to be counted while working out the cost of security measures that impinge on basic freedoms. 

Theatre Wallay gave their performance the title Zard Patton ka Bun (a forest of yellow leaves) that Faiz Ahmed Faiz had said his country had become, and the second title was Dard ki Anjuman jo Mera Des Hai (the congregation of bruised souls that my land is.) But the beautiful poem called Intesaab (dedication), and written around the middle of

the Ayub dictatorship, was no more about dead leaves than the famous American play and movie Petrified Forest was about trees. Faiz used yellow leaves as a simile for the wasted lives of his compatriots, and the denial of their rights and freedoms and joys of living.

How does the theme of shrinking public spaces fit into a remembrance of wasted lives? A little reflection will be enough to establish the link between the people’s tribulations and shrinking public spaces. The denial of right to public spaces will inexorably lead to ghettoisation of the people.

Let us first take note of the gross abuse of a public space that occurred a little before Theatre Wallay staged their performance. A group of Test cricketers had gone to watch the flag-lowering

ceremony at Wagah. Over the years, that ritual has been developed by guards belonging to Pakistan and India to establish one’s superiority over the other in martial encounters.

One should like to avoid a critique of the spectacle out of fear of ruffling the feathers in the crowns of the privileged but, here, we are concerned with the performance of a young cricketer who intruded into the public space to outdo the guards’ display of contempt and hatred for the people on the other side. As a child he can perhaps be forgiven for lapsing into infantile nationalism. But his shameful act exposes the sports controllers to censure for failing to familiarise the players with the spirit and culture of sportsmanship.

When sportspersons belonging to different nationalities clash in the arena of sport they are not one another’s enemies; they are partners in the promotion of sports and in the discovery of the heights that human endeavour can scale. What kind of behaviour on and off the field are our players being trained in by the brigades of sports officials, trainers and coaches?

To return to the subject of public spaces, the university campuses, among the most important public spaces, have been hit by a wave of scandals — attacks on the faculty’s right to academic freedom, students’ right to freedom of opinion and cultural expression, sale of university lands for non-academic use, encroachments on playing fields and irregular appointments of vice chancellors. While one feels relieved that unfair appointments of vice chancellors are being challenged, it is impossible to be happy about the implications for the system of education and the dignity that must be attached to the headship of universities.

Mosques, supposed to be the houses of God and not the property of any mortal being, figure in the debate on public spaces in more ways than one. Every Muslim knows that building a mosque on illegally occupied land is strictly prohibited in Islam. That issue was the root cause of the horrible conflict in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid.

While the echoes of that incident are still heard in the corridors of power, no authority has had the courage to stop the expropriation of public spaces for illegally constructing prayer houses. The reservation of mosques for particular sects and the use of the pulpit to preach hatred against other sects are other forms that the abuse of public space takes on an extremely large scale

In the final analysis, the people’s right to public spaces cannot be secured without raising the level of respect for their basic freedoms, recognising the beauty in diversity and abandoning perfidious attempts at forcing uniformity.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2018

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