Daanish Mustafa examines aquiet but far from progressive revolution taking place across Pakistan
‘City residents climbed on to their roofs and enjoyed the sunshine with kites. The police stood as silent observers.
People thoroughly enjoyed themselves in the winter sun. The sky was full of colourful kites all day. Despite many operations the police have remained unsuccessful in eliminating kite and string sellers’ (Daily Duniya, circa February 2017)
On February 6 this year, in the industrial town of Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab province, the police arrested 59 people, including minors, for the acts of kite flying and the selling of kites and dor (kite string). Such operations are now almost routine during the spring season in Pakistani Punjab.
Yet only a few years ago, spring was unimaginable without the joyous and sociable activity of flying kites. Admittedly, the uniquely South Asian, or perhaps Punjabi, spirit of competitive kite flying had become a somewhat dangerous enterprise, causing the deaths of many unsuspecting motorcyclistswhose throats were slit as they drove into reinforceddor strung across the roads. The Pakistani state’s reaction was to ban the activity outright, supposedly in the name of public safety. But everyone in Pakistan knows that is not the only reason. One that remains unsaid by the government but is publically articulated by the religious right around the time of basant (spring festival) is that flying kites is an unIslamic tradition, with no place in an Islamic country.
Then, on February 9, right wing parties staged a protest against the conviction of 31 men for the lynching of a university student, Mashal Khan, on 13 April 13, 2017, in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan was rumoured to have committed blasphemy, a ‘crime’ that has led to many other lynchings in Pakistan. The link between banning kites and lynching a human being, then justifying it, may seem far-fetched. But the road between the two is terrifyingly short in Pakistan, and it is lined by middle class anxieties and the security state.
Like most countries undergoing neo-liberal development, Pakistan has seen a meteoric rise in the ranks of the consumerist middle class. The country also has one of the highest urbanisation rates in Asia. This is largely thanks to the increasing commercialisation of agriculture driven by state policies that favour corporate and large farmers. The result is that a few sprawling metropolitan areas such as Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Faisalabad and Multan become choice destinations for the wealthierclasses in search of better services – primarily health and education. At the same time, small towns and villages are being hollowed out by this outmigration.
One consequence of the silent consumerist revolution is the increasing concentration of the state’s services in parts of urban Pakistanthat cater to the middle and upper middle classes. Sprawling housing societies and automobile-dependent urban design are ushering in landscapes that are distinctly hostile to pedestrians or bicycle users – that is,to working class needs. Furthermore, middle class residential enclaves tend to appropriate disproportionate amounts of land and water resources in Pakistani cities, leaving 60-80 per cent of working class citizens in unregulated informal settlements with marginal or no access to urban amenities. Indeed, 80 per cent of the new housing stock in Pakistan is affordable to no more than 1 per cent of the urban population. Pakistani security state sponsored real estate development is at the forefront of this phenomenon.
Another consequence of the rise of the middle class is the emergence of electronic media. At the last count there were 103 television channels in the country, almost half of them devoted to 24-hour news. Of all the channels,not one broadcasts children’s programmes in any of the languages spoken in Pakistan. Only two channels cater to children at all, Nickelodeon and Cartoon network Pakistan, but those have almost entirely Western programming.
Electronic media in Pakistan has emerged as a stalwart of socially conservative discourse. As the renowned progressive female writer Haseena Moin lamented, ‘It took me decades to build the progressive independent Pakistani woman character in my dramas, and the new commercial media has replaced it with the traditional women victims within months.’
The tenor of the Pakistani news channels is largely anti-financial corruption, with a generally fawning attitude towards the security state. Speaking of moral corruption with the Pakistani middle class will only draw blank looks. The same media also maintains a deafening silence, in the face of any state persecution of ethnic or religious minorities. Furthermore, any foundational critique of Pakistan’s foreign or security policy is off limits.
In maintaining such a posture, the media is driven by the demands of the corporate advertisers, who in turn are keeping a sharp eye on their socially conservative consumers, and the security state. The narrative to be promoted is that of a unitary state under threat from abroad – read India – undermined from the inside – by India and the West – and religiously revivalist, with newly discovered purer tenets of Islam – read Saudi Islam. In between all of this are mobile phone and Coca Cola advertisements, with smartly dressed young men and women dancing away across the cultural and natural landscapes of Pakistan.
In a presentation to the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA), I said, with not a little irony, ‘The Pakistani middle class aspires to replicate the industry and economy of China, the institutions and military of the United States, and the culture of Saudi Arabia.’ I meant to offend and provoke the audience; instead, the elite and middle-class audience shook its head in vigorous approval.It is this same middle class that populates the ranks of the Pakistani bureaucracy and the security state.
Middle class anxieties about the Indian Muslim’s humiliation during colonial times were one of the drivers of communal politics in colonial India. So argues Jan-Peter Hartung, a senior lecturer at SOAS, in his book on Abu A’la Mawdudi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the most influential right wing parties in Pakistan, which draws its rank and file mostly from the lower to upper middle class.
Of course, Muslims were not unique in this respect. Hartung also points to similar anxieties driving Hindu revivalist movements in colonial and post-colonial India – hence India as the last refuge of the Hinduvta. But, sticking to the narrative on Muslims, Mawdudi never envisioned the Jamaat as a popular movement when he founded it in 1940, in Pathankot, Indian Punjab. Instead, drawing upon his understanding of the Communist revolution in Russia, and the rise of fascism in Europe, he envisioned the Jamaat as an organisational weapon. The Jamaat-e-Islami was to penetrate the upper and middle echelons of power, with its message of a purist, ahistorical, acultural Islam. It was then to use the levers of power to impose a revolution from above.
Pakistan’s central narrative of a unitary Islamic state is, in no small part, informed by the sanitised understanding of Islamic history, as espoused by Mawdudi and his fellow travellers. And in penetrating the (still) relatively small middle class, the Jamaat and its ideologically aligned other parties on the right have ensured the disproportionate representation of their world view, perceptions of history and visions for Pakistan’s future in the security state.
In the security state’s imaginings, Pakistan is to be a capitalist economy but not a liberal capitalist society, à la Mawdudi. It is to be a fortress of Islam – a distinctly militarist idiom borrowed from the Islamic revivalist discourse of the early 20th century, represented amongst others by Mawdudi, who in turn was influenced by the ongoing cultural and political battles around fascism, communism and liberalism in the early 20th century. The security state’s vision for Pakistan has a strong streak of stoicism, and modernist epistemological commitment to categorical understandings of religion, history and culture.
The Pakistani security state and its allies in the Pakistani middle class routinely demonise the left and liberal leaning non-governmental organisations engaged in advocacy for progressive causes. The recent banning of international NGOs is a case in point. The state also takes a dim view of the largely left-leaning ethno-nationalist movements, and routinely abducts left-leaning activists, who may become too vocal, even on social media.
So should Pakistanis be able to enjoy spring by flying kites? The safety argument doesn’t fly. A state that purports to be on the frontline of the global war on terror,and claiming victory; a state that fights an insurgency in its largest province, Balochistan; a state that keeps enemies like India at bay – such a state cannot regulate a few dozen kite string makers in urban Pakistan? The idea is disingenuous. Something else is afoot.
The Daily Duniya news clip that opens this article would probably not be found anywhere else in the world. Beautiful weather, people enjoying kites and the police not preventing them from that indulgence is thenot so subliminaltext here. If anything encapsulates the anxieties about identity, religion and life in Pakistan, this does. People in fortresses donot enjoy themselves; they stoically keep a watchful eye on foreign invasions of the body politic. People in fortresses are, by definition, under threat. And if the body politic is to be defined by the rarefied categorical understandings of religion, then any discursive invasion that grounds it in culture, history and the frailties of human affairs and pleasures is a threat. Ask the Hinduvta lynch mobs in India. You will get the same answer. Kites,and progressive students like Mashal Khan,are equally dangerous in such a fortress.