The third general elections since Pakistan’s return to democracy should have been hailed as proof of the resilience of the emerging democratic system. Instead, we have witnessed an election that had become controversial even before the beginning of the election campaign due to alleged manipulation of the electoral field in favour of the PTI. Opposition parties are now threatening a mass movement of civil disobedience as confrontation looms large on our political horizon.
There is, however, a palpable sense of melancholia, a loss that can neither be acknowledged nor mourned, among large sections of the population. Perhaps it stems from a latent acknowledgement that the elections were too stage-managed behind the scenes for there to be a genuine or prolonged outpouring of joy over the results. On the other hand, despite the bravado of opposition leaders Shehbaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman against the ‘establishment’ and the incoming government, there remains widespread suspicion whether such politicians are taking this stand out of principles or mere expediency.
This cynicism stems from the history of capitulation of politicians (these two gentlemen leading figures in that history) in front of the establishment in crucial moments in order to secure their own political careers. Whether it was ceding space to military courts, exhibiting complete silence on the alleged excesses during the military operations in Karachi, Balochistan and Fata, or refusing to fight in any meaningful way against the curbs on the media and on universities, these leaders maintained a calculated indifference to multiple events that amply demonstrated our descent into authoritarianism.
In this bizarre state we can neither feel joy over the conclusion of an (expensive) election nor find an adequate avenue to channel our anger. This paralysis reflects the disorientation within our body politic where the lines of demarcation have become increasingly blurred. It also reveals that there is an unspoken consensus between the elites in our country that remains intact despite the repeated tensions in civil-military relations. The foremost political task today is to expose these invisible red lines, and reorient our energies towards themes that can lead to a new wave of resistance which cannot be easily assimilated within the dominant framework. In my opinion, two issues that were a significant absence from the electoral debate carry this subversive potential within themselves: the case of the ‘Missing Persons’ and the centrality of ‘class’.
The controversy around the missing persons represents the most concentrated expression of the legal, ideological and institutional battles that shape Pakistan’s political landscape. For it is difficult to claim the sovereignty of the people when the abduction of citizens emerges not as a temporary aberration, but a deliberate policy for wiping out dissent. I have written elsewhere that missing persons should be called ‘political prisoners’, since there is no reason for their illegal captivity at the hands of the state other than their political views. In a situation where the physical well-being of citizens is at stake, we move away from notions of a political community anchored upon values to one premised on fear induced through bodily pain!
To force people to repress ‘subversive’ thoughts by invoking their physiological vulnerabilities threatens to undo all the constitutional or political advances made over the last few decades. But this issue is also linked to other disparities in our political history. For example, abducting citizens is more common in peripheral regions of the country, including Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Gilgit-Baltistan, where this draconian policy is liberally used to quell any alleged threat to ‘national integrity’, signalling the uneven intensity of citizens’ existence across spatial and linguistic lines. Therefore, the question of the ‘missing persons’ is today a terrain on which we confront the darkest aspects of our history, including civil-military relations, linguistic and ethnic rights, freedom of dissent and the right to life and dignity for ordinary citizens.
The issue of class also maintains a disturbing absence from our national discourse, since in our world dominated by Western policy think tanks, it is believed that the fruits of ‘development’ will eventually trickle down. In actual history, this ‘business friendly’ language has meant a forceful disciplining of labour, starting from the killings of 102 workers in the colony textile mills of Multan under the monstrous regime of General Zia. This was followed by a ban on trade unions, and consequently, the maintenance of low wages, negligible employment benefits, as well as the proliferation of temporary and precarious jobs, all in order to ‘facilitate investment’ in the country.
We are expected to show patience and accept such policies in the name of ‘national interest’. And if any group of workers refuse to accept this imposition of ‘patience as virtue’, they are tried under anti-terror laws, as was witnessed with Faisalabad’s powerloom workers who were imprisoned for life for leading a strike in 2010.
After all these years of following the manuals prepared by International Financial Institutions, the result has been an economy built on speculative bubbles in the real-estate sector, rampant privatisation of essential services including education, health and water, and an increasing burden of debt. Yet, the elite continue to be subsidised, with negligible implementation of income or wealth taxes, and increased burden on the consumers through high sales tax and stagnant wages. In his best-seller, ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’, renowned economist Thomas Piketty demonstrates how the general tendency of capitalism is to exacerbate class differences and accentuate inequality, a trend that is clearly discernible in the incredible wealth gap in the contemporary world.
The situation in Pakistan is further complicated with the ‘youth bulge’ – the increasing number of young people entering an already stretched labour market. Where will the vitality of these young souls find an adequate avenue, particularly since in the age of increased automation, we are witnessing the phenomenon of jobless growth? Here, we can identify the secret knot that binds our ruling elite beyond the divisions between conservatives and liberals, or civilian and military – the fear that the growing number of people who cannot be integrated into the system have to be managed through excessive policing. This fear is carved out onto space through elite housing societies, is evident in the tacit consensus on military operations in peripheral regions, increased surveillance of universities, use of anti-terror laws against workers and peasants, and, of course, in the criminal silence over the missing persons!
We are then threatened by a dystopic reality where, to paraphrase Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, politics melts into the management of a permanent disorder. If we are to avoid such a pitiable future, then we must shun the language of ‘neutrality’ and accept the unavoidable conflict that looms on issues of missing persons and class rule. The only adequate response to these challenges is by affirming the dignity of all life and the necessity of equality, principles that can help carve out a politics with the potential to genuinely transform the existing political and ideological constellation. Our failure to do so will have grave consequences, since the very existence of politics, let alone democracy, is at stake.
The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.