Pakistan, they say, is over


My last few weeks in this country have wrought a tide of lazy sociology. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, this bewildering mishmash of overeager armchair analysts, fear-mongering as breaking news, and–amidst it all–the well-founded concerns of good, principled people.

The narrative is, of course, familiar. "Pakistan–nuclear state and home to 170-odd million people–is on the verge of an Islamist takeover, analysts say. The instability in Afghanistan [read: harvest of a comically-corrupt coalition occupation now mismanaged by Barack "Hope-and-Change" Obama] is spilling over into its neighbor to the southeast. The Pakistani nation [read: tragic fruit of Jinnah's tragic movement], already devastated by economic troubles [read: local and global capitalist crisis], now must fear for its political future. One of America‘s principal regional allies [read: perennial lapdog], may soon go the way of Iran."

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One needs to be honest, from the off. The threats posed by armed insurgents of fundamentalist stripes are not trivial. But as these concerns drape themselves in the red-white-and-blue giftwrap of imperialist Islamophobes seven thousand miles to the west, one needs, more than ever, analytical clarity and a strong commitment to an independent praxis. No number of GI Joes (nor Marshall Plan lullabies) can save Pakistan–not now, not ever.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that ten months in Pakistan have taught me, it is this: delicately balancing the multiple imperatives of Left activism in this country is no easy task.

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This nation, after all, often seems nothing more than a slow procession of sorrows. As a child my sympathies were forged at traffic lights, mothers and grandfathers tap-tapping on indifferent car windows. A smattering of good classes at college pieced together a framework to help make sense of this and other misery.

Yet, maybe only because of my incurable pessimism, ten months of stop-start conversations with hunger-striking haris and teenage proletarians have not divided into categories of class analysis, without remainder. The air in this place, you see, is impossibly thick with tears. And, in this sense, no analysis–however thoughtful, however engaged–can explain away the unshakable sense of sadness that settles over this country.

One afternoon pacing the pavement of the Press Club is enough to break even the hardest of hearts. Only last week I slinked away from a pair of veiled women rocking back and forth in grief–one of them was a sea of tears as she denounced the complicity of police and doctors in the gang-rape and murder of her daughter. Around them, as on the day before and the day before that, Baluchis slowly flooded the street, screaming an infinity of legitimate grievances against our overdeveloped State.

(Young, eager reporters invariably crowded round, scribbling frantically and honestly. Yet none of their endeavor ever trickles up, it seems. The headlines here remain unapologetically feudal in focus, rarely more than shameful fragments of celebrity happenings (Aitzaz’ plane has landed, Altaf Bhai is drooling into his microphone–"Let’s Listen!"). A dialectic of floodlit narcissisms: the Media attracts the Political Players, the Political Players attract the Media. The lives of 17 crore, meanwhile, only sporadically merit mention.)

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It is, I insist, to this larger panorama of sorrow that we must turn, for any fully honest engagement with the hows and whys of militant misogyny. Yes, I remember Zia, and how the Empire and willing lackeys flooded the northwest with guns and butter in the 80s. And yes I’m aware that our own comprador class, shady affiliates in tow, continued to cultivate these networks and this ideology for depraved, strategic ends.

I know that fundamentalism ripened holding hands with local and global imperialisms.

But this is not the entire story. The foot-soldiers of this war–teenage sons and brothers after blood or money or a reason for living, even–have been furnished by a State that has failed (and bombed) them. Does anyone really doubt this? We are in the midst of the greatest internal refugee crisis in Pakistan‘s history. Perhaps more than a million souls, adrift in the brutish netherworlds of makeshift camps and slum cities. They can’t ask, so I will: where was the rage when the military leveled Bajaur?

All good sociology, after all, is grounded in compassion–in a willingness to understand people as products of the world that nurtures them. The furious barbarians at our gates, then, reflect–in a general sense–the barbarism of the polity that crowns us, the "civilized".

Granted, again, I don’t deny the analytical weight of non-organic meddling; "surely you afford these terrorists some agency?" someone asked me. Once when I argued that the Right in this country has thrived in the space vacated by the Left, a Swati comrade offered an impassioned rebuttal: "The agencies have targeted us ruthlessly, but left their activists untouched." And, in fairness, that dynamic is not trivial. As many have rightly foregrounded, our State has long sought to fill its gaping insufficiencies with the bunkum of Islamist dreams.

But the temptation to excise these floggers from humanity, from history, from Pakistan–the nervous insistence that "they," the wahabi invaders, are made of different stuff than are we, the well-educated feminists–obscures the basic fact that, barring the rogue global jihadi, we come from the same stock. The same failed, sad society that has gifted me my American diploma has thrust on them their daily diet of cantankerous mullahs, cruel landlords, and hard, stale bread.

The NYT reports that landless peasants, enraged at years of corrupt government and a bumbling legal system, comprise the core of the TTP’s shock troops in Swat. Yesterday’s Maoists as today’s Mullahs, maybe? (At one point, the Sendero Luminoso banned alcohol and fiestas, did you know?). Or take our whisky-drinking thinktankers, who have been lamenting the rollback of the Government’s writ in FATA; need we remind ourselves that their newfound concern is myopic, and absurdly so? The Centre’s legal-political relationship to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is literally colonial, having been enacted by Lord Curzon (of Victorian Holocaust fame) in 1901. The restoration of the Political Agent’s tribal autocracy, I’m afraid, will do little to fight the flames of fundamentalism. Can you really begrudge someone their rage at a State that imprisons four year-olds for crimes committed by tribal elders?

Again, I don’t intend to underplay the threat. Even if talk of Pakistan falling to the Taliban is imperial hysteria, I share the grievances and agenda of fellow secular activists–sharia has arrived, and it must be fought.

But if we’re to wage this war successfully, we need patience, courage, and a sense of perspective. As our starred-and-striped benefactors carve new geographies into the flesh of innocents (Together now, to the tune of humming drones: "AF-PAK"), it’s imperative that we don’t abandon political clarity for the hackneyed idioms of the War for Civilization. Far too many articles these days have been screaming that the end is nigh, the mullahs are here, "Pakistan is over." In an English daily last Friday, a Princeton student–choreographed and ahistorical patriotism dripping from her pen–demanded "her country" back. But righteous rage, however well-meant and genuine, will not itself undo the legacy of decades of class callousness.

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In the longue durée, we need to build. It is not a question, really, of saving Pakistan–for the vast majority, there is very little to salvage in our pre-Taliban past. Rather–and I know I risk, here, precisely the kind of sermonizing I find insufferable, myself–we must seek the revolutionary transformation of our economy, our society, our polity.

This is the way out. This is our burden.

Work to those ends, of course, is the painful, slow stuff of grassroots politics. We need to strengthen links to workers, peasants, students, women. We need to build a movement that can challenge for power–a movement with a popular mandate and a radical, far-reaching manifesto.

It’s worth remembering that this activism exists, even if in incomplete, sporadic forms. Only last week 20,000 peasants convened in Okara, hoisting red flags and demanding an end to the hegemony of our parasites-in-khaki. There’s no question that these efforts need redoubling. But when was that not the case?

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Two days ago, I went with a group of Labor Party comrades to visit the villagers from Muhammad Essa Khaskheli, who had spent 20-odd days protesting outside the walls of the Press Club in Karachi, most of it to deaf ears. The week-long period stipulated by an agreement promising the resolution of their demands had elapsed, without any action having been taken. As I shuffled cautiously down a muddy, slippery path ringing land that Varyaam Faqeer had flooded (to house his stock of exotic fish, of course), Ahsan relayed rumors that Varyaam had placed a bounty of 50,000 rupees on his and others’ heads. I recalled an earlier morning in the hospital when the doctor had said that Wali Dad’s prospects were bleak–Ahsan and Madad, Wali Dad’s nephew, had put their hands on my sagging shoulders and told me–who faced no threat to life or property, no empty belly, no dying relative–that I needed to be brave, that the struggle went on. Thinking back, I go red with unfiltered shame.

And now they were saying the same, making decisions to return to Karachi and the Press Club the following day, insisting that they would hold the feudal’s feet to the fire. As I write this they are there, dozens of women, children, and men, fending off mosquitoes and the threats of Varyaam’s henchmen.

In these confusing, troubled times, perhaps it’s this, above all else–the simple justice of their struggle, the indomitable spirit of their fight–to which we must cling, and on which we must build.

Adaner Usmani is a student and activist based in Karachi. He works with Action for a Progressive Pakistan (http://progpak.wordpress.com/), as well as the Labour Party (LPP). Please write to him at adaner.usmani[at]gmail.com.

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