What do people think when they think of Peshawar? Most of my Pakistani friends in the US are endlessly annoyed by the ignorance of common Americans or even Indian colleagues’ lack of appreciation for Pakistan’s complexities beyond sensational headlines.
However, when it comes to Peshawar (and more so, of course, for the rest of the Pakhtun belt) their opinions are very similar to those that Westerners or Indians have of Pakistan in general. Nevertheless, it is not the Peshawar of my friends’ and fellow Pakistanis’ imagination that drives my initial question; the question really is: what do I think when I think of Peshawar?
I grew up in Peshawar. It is the only city in the world where when asked for directions, I do not guess but actually give directions. It is the only city I call home. The city has a soothing spatial significance to me that I cannot explain but expect others to appreciate. So when I was going back to Peshawar in the summer of 2016 after an interval of two years, I was looking forward to the feeling of unshackled homeliness that comes with endearing familiarity. But either Peshawar or I had changed; or maybe both of us did.
Faiz Ahmad Faiz said that people change when their dwelling changes. Perhaps, it was being outside Pakistan for this period that changed my perspective. That does not mean that I have become snobbish. Because ironically, where for Faiz it was prison that became home, for me, it was my city, my home that felt like prison.
A Lahori friend of mine says that when he thinks of Lahore, he thinks of celebration. Previously when I would think of Peshawar, I would feel that Peshawar exuded tranquillity. That is what it represented to me. But not anymore. Now when I think of Peshawar, the word that comes to my mind is indignity; the sort of indignity that people assimilate and make a part of their character. So, every time I travelled in a local wagon, I would be the only person who would be somewhat annoyed when a member of some law-enforcement agency would demand the travellers to identify themselves. Most fellow passengers would actually be relieved, even happy, that their NICs were returned to them, and that they were not suddenly told that they were not Pakistanis.
You cannot blame them. Dignity is not a limb and people have lost theirs in that city fairly frequently. It made me sad how people thought they were smart just because they had aced the technique to wheedle security men into letting them go without much questioning; when all they were doing was going home, their own homes.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the one thing I repeated a number of times was how Peshawar felt like a militarised city. And it is not just the huge presence of law enforcement that makes you feel that way, it is their attitude too. That is where the real loss of dignity happens in Peshawar. That is where you see the dynamics of power – of arrogance and conformity. When you deploy individuals in your cities who have primarily been trained to fight in hostile enemy territory, this is bound to happen. Maybe it is the low salaries, the extended work hours and the risk to life – who knows? But these are not individuals with the best interpersonal skills.
When I spoke with friends in Peshawar about this sense of oppressive stuffiness and what I saw as the loss of dignity, most of them expressed similar resentment. However, a feeling of resignation accompanied their resentment, which almost saw this repressive trend as part and parcel of the new Peshawar.
Some, on the other hand, were more dismissive. A few friends suggested that I was being naïve and ‘overly sensitive’ about something as intangible as dignity and self-respect when there was something much greater at stake – the survival and security of the citizens. I could not really sweep the argument aside. Of course, people’s security is important in a city where terrorists have targeted schools, courts and mosques. But I kept asking myself whether it is idealistic to believe that dignity is not subservient to security.
The answer that I kept coming back to is that human dignity is inextricably tied to the idea of human life. As the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights reminds us, dignity is not only an alienable human right, it is “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. It is the one right that cannot be taken away under any circumstances, not even from an enemy prisoner or someone on death row for heinous crimes, let alone from your own citizens going about their daily lives.
I am tempted to claim that restoring dignity to security practices is going to enhance their efficiency and improve output. It is going to prevent people from joining the ranks of terrorist outfits. Maybe all that is true – but that’s not the point. My arguments are simple: undignified security practices have been thoroughly unhelpful in improving security in Peshawar.
For a state to demonstrate any level of concern for its citizens, it can devise plans that do not work on the premise of security and dignity being mutually exclusive. Because the only life worth living is one with dignity, without which all is lost.
The writer is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science,
University of Peshawar. He also co-hosts the podcast ‘Understanding Pakistan’ on patarimusic Twitter: aamer1raza