Optimism of the will
ARGUABLY the most prominent dimension of the latest round of dharnas against the killings of Hazara Shia in Quetta was the participation and leading role of youth.
When Shia and Hazara community leaders agreed to end the protest on Tuesday night, the youth refused to comply, relenting only after great efforts to placate them.
That almost all the young people present were vociferous in their demand that the army be given full control of Quetta city is disturbing, but not unexpected.
Pakistan’s youth is generally understood to be relatively uninterested in the affairs of the state, and prone to making common cause with what might be called ‘patriots’ in all fields of life. In the case of a relatively insular community such as the Hazara, the prevalence of an uncomplicated ‘black or white’ worldview is hardly surprising.
Yet even while the young men, women, boys and girls participating in the dharna were calling for the army to take over, their desperation betrayed rapid politicisation.
It is these youth that symbolise the collective trauma to which the Hazara community has been subject over the past few months. And it is these same youth whose politics will evolve in the months to come.
Indeed, whether they admit to it or not, young people in today’s Pakistan are inevitably the carriers of the ideologies of the groups from which they hail.
In the case of the Hazara Shia — a relatively educated community integrated into formal economic and political institutions — young people will be forced to reconsider their unthinking ‘patriotism’ if their current predicament does not subside.
And because of their greater access to the media, young Hazara will end up representing the (quickly evolving) political position of their community.
A cursory look at other contemporary nationalist movements within Pakistan — most of which have a much longer history of ‘unpatriotism’ — confirms the central role of educated youth.
Indeed, an argument can be made that the propertied classes and ‘elders’ who exercised a virtual monopoly on the discourse and practice of the movement in years past are quickly being eclipsed by a globally connected younger generation.
To take the most obvious example: the tone and tenor of the ongoing Baloch national movement is increasingly determined by its younger cadres. Schools, colleges and universities across Balochistan — or at the very least the Baloch-majority areas of that province — have become the breeding grounds of nationalist politics. It is from these breeding grounds that militants draw their strength.
Kashmiri, Sindhi and even Seraiki nationalisms are similarly reliant on young people. These nationalisms are less radical than the Baloch variety but more radical than the Hazara variety.
Yet even where complete rupture is not the objective of the movement, the youth are drawn to revolutionary imaginaries, whatever their type. In a country where almost two-thirds of the population is under the age of 23, and there is increasingly little chance of integration into crumbling formal political and economic structures, let alone resisting state-sponsored terror, the lure of liberation ideologies is hardly surprising.
This growing youth bulge in political movements is not just a function of the current conjuncture in Pakistan. Around the world young people who are able to bridge social and other divides through the use of new technologies are at the forefront of responses to societal and global crises of various kinds.
The Occupy movements in North America and Europe, the radical student movement in Chile and the Arab ‘revolutions’ that have unfolded over the past two years are all pertinent examples.
There is no guarantee that youth — like any other social group — align themselves with a progressive political ideology or movement. In the case of nationalist movements, as I have mentioned above, the primary commitment is to the ‘liberation’ of one’s own ethnic-national community.
In contemporary Pakistan young people are attracted to a host of other political movements and organisations, including right-of-centre formations like the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI).
Youth have also been consistently pushed in the direction of jihadi militancy due to state ideology and the network of educational and welfare institutions run by the religious right.
If there is one similarity between all of these contemporary movements within Pakistan, it is that they rally young people around constructed identities that are relatively exclusive.
In comparison, young people in an erstwhile era were attracted more to movements that sought to bring together diverse ethnic and religious groups on the basis of universalistic principles such as class struggle and resistance to imperialism.
Indeed, even if one compares movements within Pakistan to those in the rest of the world that I have listed, the difference in composition and objectives is readily apparent.
This does not necessarily make any one kind of movement more or less legitimate than any other. But it does indicate which ideologies are currently circulating within the specifically Pakistani context.
In fact, ethnicity and religion (or sect) have been major signifiers in Pakistan since the very beginning because Pakistani nationalism was — and still is — built around Islam. The role of these identities has only intensified since the dark days of Gen Ziaul Haq.
Ethnic-national movements are generally far more progressive than religious ones, but the overall trajectory of politics in Pakistan over the past couple of decades has not been particularly reassuring.
It is thus that the young people who are becoming the face of this politics of identity will come to play a decisive role — knowingly or otherwise — in charting the future of this country.
Only time will tell whether or not this relatively educated segment of society can bridge the ethnic and sectarian divides that become apparent with each passing day, or if instead it becomes the unwitting agent of the state’s long-term project of sponsoring parochial ideologies.
At the very least, young people will eventually establish the truth about the ‘patriots’ to whom they have always been taught devotion. In fact, I would like to believe that there is hope yet that youth in today’s world can still be drawn towards inclusive political projects that emphasise a rejection of all forms of oppression, including the structures of capitalist imperialism that both divide us and bring us all together.
Hope is, of course, not quite enough. History, however, is testimony to the ability of the young amongst us to challenge the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.