May 13, 2010

Abbottabad and after

The creation of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the subsequent reaction in Hazara are necessary stages along the road to a revised social contract

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Much has been written about the quite sudden emergence of the 'Sooba Hazara' movement. Some have argued that everything that has transpired in the last few weeks has been at the behest of 'hidden forces' while those on the other extreme insist that the demand for a separate province and identity is decades-old and that a wide cross-section of people in the region support it unequivocally.

Polemic aside, the incidents that unfolded in Abbottabad and its environs in the days following the formal adoption of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa name by the National Assembly are important for numerous reasons. First, they indicate just how difficult it will be for Pakistanis to forge a collective identity in years to come. Second, they underline the fact that the culture of politics that prevails in this country is reactionary at best and downright retrogressive at worst. Third, the fact that Gohar Ayub and his son are amongst the leaders of the 'Sooba Hazara' movement underscores the lack of a genuinely representative political party in this country.

To take up the question of identity first: I have written on numerous occasions on these pages that our official identity as Pakistanis is little more than a negation of India. The powers-that-be continue to project the 'two-nation theory' as the state's raison d'etre despite the fact that only the very naïve or manipulative can possibly still claim that shared religious identity constitutes a reasonable basis for modern nationhood. Among other things, sectarianism has increased so acutely over the past three decades that the notion of a single religious identity has become laughable. And this is to say nothing of the ethnic strife has existed since virtually the inception of the state itself.

The re-naming of the NWFP was long overdue, and none committed to a revamped and more historically meaningful Pakistani identity would deny Pakhtuns the right to be formally acknowledged as a constitutive part of the Pakistani federation. But the fact of the matter is that identity has become so politicised that Hindko-speakers in the province were always likely to react (even if such an acute reaction could not have been predicted).

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is, therefore, not only the culmination of the Pakhtun demand to have their rights and identity acknowledged, but is also likely to be remembered as triggering a domino effect which will result in a host of ethno-linguistic groups asserting similar demands. There is no way around this very difficult subject; the establishment's persistent refusal to accept the multi-national character of the state has resulted in identity becoming much more politicised an issue than it otherwise might have been. The sooner these thorny questions are openly and democratically addressed the better. Waiting any longer will only exacerbate ethnic tensions and strengthen the forces of fragmentation.

Second, the fact that the Abbottabad protests very quickly degenerated into wanton violence is hardly surprising. All over the country real issues precipitate protests but all too often the real issues get submerged as the protests lose focus and are reduced to needless aggression against none and nothing in particular. This dysfunctional culture of agitational politics is easily explained: there has been so much state repression over the decades, and particularly during and after the Zia years, that ordinary people, and particularly youth, either do not express themselves at all or become so excitable as to lose track of why they are out expressing their frustration in the first place.

This psychology is not limited just to the formal political sphere. As bad has been the cultural repression that was synonymous with 'Islamisation' in the 1980s and has hardly abated even after the tyrant's death in 1988. Things have actually gotten worse with the spread of the new information technologies, including the cell phone, personal computer, and the internet. Youth now get their fix through these gadgets and the information superhighway rather than in public parks, open air theatres and festivals. Add to the fact that the school environment is also repressed and one has the making of a society on the verge of implosion.

Finally and perhaps most disturbing is our crisis of representation. The cynicism that is expressed about the 'Sooba Hazara' movement is explained in large part by the fact that its leaders include sons and grandsons of dictators who have historically been the enemies of democratic struggles and the strongest proponents of the unitary state. More generally, mainstream political parties are characterised by high levels of factionalism and opportunism, while ideological commitment is considered something of an anachronism. There are the explicitly ethnic-nationalist parties but like all of their contemporaries these parties too have lost some of their dynamism in recent times.

I think that a regeneration of politics and political parties is possible in the near future. But this will take concerted effort, and most of all, an uninterrupted political process. I take great offence whenever political parties are maligned by generals, bureaucrats, and armchair intellectuals. My critique of parties acknowledges the role that the establishment has played in undermining politics and parties and is based on a belief that political activists committed to their respective ideologies must try and rebuild a robust culture of politics in this country in the face of the continuing machinations of the state apparatus.

In this regard, activists of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP) -- who consider themselves to be flag-bearers of secular and progressive ideals -- have as much a role to play as those who do not occupy the corridors of power. If, however, the rank-and-file of the PPP and ANP are happily co-opted within the culture of opportunism that has been actively promoted by the establishment, then they must be willing to accept that other political activists who maintain a confrontational stance and remain true to a change agenda will hold the parties who share power as culpable alongside the establishment itself.

The creation of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the subsequent reaction in Hazara are, in the context of our political history, necessary stages along the road to a revised social contract. If we learn lessons from these episodes we might actually make further progress. But if we continue to see the world through our own parochial blinkers, ethnic polarisation will intensify within an already repressed society.

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