The ‘irrationality’ around us
OBSERVING the rationality and irrationality of recent events, the mobilisation, violence, and rioting witnessed last Friday offered some insight into the way that public space is coloured in Pakistan.
Based on the footage, and watching some of it first-hand in a local market, one could get the feeling that there were two complementary strands at work.
The first was a sense of organisation and purpose with mobilised cadres coming out in a show of strength and defiance, drawing instructions from rightwing-fuelled ‘joint action committees’. This is what was presented as the legitimate and rational face of ‘protest’ — an idea acceptable to a vast majority, educated or illiterate, rich or poor.
The second strand was visible in the violence, some of which seemed planned, while the rest seemed spontaneous. Young kids, some of them barely over 13, were involved in setting fire to police posts, public buildings, banks, and vehicles.
In parts of Islamabad, far removed from the diplomatic enclave, local traders carefully orchestrated a show of strength that consisted of road blockages, tyre-burning, and tearing down advert hoardings.
The actual vandalism was carried out by labourers employed at shops, and street children who work with scrap dealers. This was the ‘irrational’ but unavoidable face of affairs — condemned by most, yet prevented by few.
Combined, these two strands showed us a snapshot of Pakistan’s predominant protesting public and its performative repertoire, cultivated over the years by local interests, relied upon by expedient political parties, and sustained by the military through a wide variety of ways.
What’s most telling is that the protesting coalition, as announced on large banners in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Karachi, consisted of ‘traders, ulema, lawyers, welfare organisations, journalists and students’ — basically our version of civil society.
This is where the actual monopolisation has taken place, i.e. in the space that exists between the formal political process and society in general. Historically, this is the space where debate and contestation take place. Where ideas about freedoms, rights, and social norms are challenged, deliberated upon, and then brought into the mainstream political process.
In many countries, political parties, and voluntary associations hailing from a wide variety of ideological positions carry out the task of organising this space, and consequently, the people who occupy it. In the case of Pakistan, however, this heterogeneity was true only at some point in the past. The tide now flows in only one direction.
Given an entire day to showcase their wares by the government, these ‘civil-society’ actors and groups have served a timely reminder of just how dangerous, or consequently, how useful they can be.
Due to our proximity to a general election, we’ll soon hear whispers of constituency-level agreements between candidates of mainstream parties and representatives of rightwing groups.
Trader associations across the countries, heavily conservative in their politics, have long delivered the support of the bazaaris to various political parties, and will continue to do so. Patronage in return for electoral support. Electoral support in return for a blind eye.
In some areas, the process has already begun. A local religious organisation is rumoured to have signed off on an electoral alliance with the PPP in Sahiwal, at the behest of their local leader, who claims he saw Mohtarma in his dreams. Similarly, the PML-N will continue to work with these groups as important allies at the constituency level, relying on their ability to mobilise their own electorate.
Essentially, these self-serving alliances have allowed conservative and militant groups to further monopolise social space in a way that leaves little room for other forms of protests to emerge.
The best example of this is that the charred metal of the burnt factory in Karachi is probably still warm, yet the biggest protests we’ve seen in the last week have been over a purposefully provocative YouTube video. Subsequently, they’ve also received the most coverage.
What happened on Friday wasn’t specifically because of the capitulation of the government in front of rightwing groups, nor was the subsequent announcement of a $100,000 bounty by a sitting federal minister an attempt at appeasement. These are all ancillary outcomes, or even symptoms of that monopolised public space, which has drawn up a perverse incentive structure for existing politicians and all other mainstream actors.
No government, no political party, no public figure would even dream of denying the right of formal protest over that YouTube video. The most they could say was that protests need to be peaceful and orderly, a minor detail which many decide to overlook in the heat of the moment.
As far as I’m concerned, debates on the ‘right’ way to protest take us away from more pressing questions on what should be protested, and more broadly, where and how should such questions be raised.
The onus, ultimately, falls on political parties, progressive groups and associations, and people of different ideological dispositions to organise in the same public spaces, to undo this monopolisation of ideas and norms, and to present alternative incentive structures. Otherwise, we’ll continue to be marginal actors, commenting on the irrationality of the world around us.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.