The recent mob-led attack on an Ahmadi place of worship, in which at least half a dozen individuals were injured, once again shows how spectacular acts of violence have become a central feature of our society.
The tacit support provided to mobs by the state through legal injunctions and lack of purposeful action by the police gives immense confidence to groups that indulge in such gory public spectacles. But, rather than solely focusing on calls for protection from the state (which are no doubt essential), we must also pause to ask just what anxieties within our social body are causing such repeated and unapologetic episodes of public cruelty.
Before examining the reasons in detail, it is pertinent to mention that there is remarkable scholarship from academics in India on riots and mob violence. For example, Aijaz Ahmad, a prominent Marxist scholar from India, argues that mob violence in India, led by Hindu extremists and directed at Muslims, Christians and Dalits, stems from a “revivalist” form of nationalism. This form of nationalism was a response to the social dislocations produced by colonial modernity, and dreamt of a restorative process through which a pristine past, including its rigid hierarchies, could be re-established. Now the problem with such notion of a pre-modern, pristine and homogenous pre-colonial past is that it never existed and was simply an invention of the imagination of the revivalists.
Positing the nation as a closed entity meant that there was perpetual fear of the contamination of the national body through foreign elements – from cultural practices to political views and entire communities that threatened this imagined unity. Public displays of violence enter to soothe such anxiety by apparently subduing threatening elements in order to “restore” the imagined past, by relegating vulnerable groups back to their supposedly assigned place in the natural order. But since there never was a pristine past that matches the imagination of the revivalists, the result is a perpetual proliferation of enemies in the form of Muslims, women and Dalits, leading to an endless spiral of violence and cruelty toward these groups and across society.
It would be fair to say that we in Pakistan are also undergoing one of our worst phases in revivalism for a pure Muslim identity that simply cannot be reproduced in the contemporary world, leading to increased anxiety among our puritans as a response to socio-cultural changes.
Much has been written about the desire to locate our past away from the Subcontinent to an imagined origin in the Arab world. Such displacement leads to embarrassing debates on frivolous issues such as whether one should say ‘Khuda Hafiz’ or ‘Allah Hafiz’ to whether celebrating Basant or Mehndi is ‘Islamic’, demonstrating how puritans are fixated merely on finding religious authenticity. This constitutes remarkable intellectual degeneration, considering the creative relationship Muslims in the Subcontinent have had with religious texts, from Sufism to engagements with questions of constitutionalism, the nation-state and even socialism.
Unfortunately, today the pursuit of religion has been reduced to an infinite process of purging – purging culture, purging history and, if need be, purging human beings, all in the name of securing religious/national identity. And the victims are predictably those who allegedly threaten this identity, including minorities, assertive women, politically active ethnic groups, and anybody who extends solidarity to them.
This hysterical behaviour, which is utilised by right-wing groups and sections of the state to eliminate opposition, is supplemented by a haunting absence within our political milieu. This absence is the lack of a collective sense of belonging, either provided by the state or by progressive socio-political forces that can actively work to overcome the anxiety stemming from social dislocations by fighting for social justice. The lack of a collective cement has a strong impact on our social consciousness, as it allows fear and hate to trump notions of empathy and solidarity for others.
We remember the horror we all felt when some allegedly PTI supporters callously attacked a donkey to death after writing ‘Nawaz Sharif’ on it, followed by QWP supporters shooting a dog wrapped in a PTI flag. As shocking as it was, many would testify that they have witnessed children, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, pursuing stray dogs and cats (and at times the mentally ill) with stones on the streets. This shocking form of cruelty clearly has to be condemned; but can the blame be placed squarely with the children? Children are just children, and they will only respond to the world that they have come to inhabit.
And what is it about this world that evacuates all sense of empathy for a suffering animal, or worse still, turns it into a spectacle worth enjoying? It is the pervasive sense of abandonment felt by these children in a world where they do not receive quality education, where they do not have the sense of protection accorded to bourgeois children, and where their innocent desires are frustrated on a daily basis owing to their family’s position in the class hierarchy. In other words, it’s a world where they exist but do not seem to belong.
The cruelty exhibited towards animals occurs in temporary moments in which the perpetrators appear in control, albeit at the cost of the immense suffering of another living being. Recognising the sense of being out of place as being a primary factor in the abuses perpetrated of course does not absolve anyone of their guilt, but it does raise questions about the ruling elites who have failed to invest in the infrastructure of care that give a sense of collective belonging, with all the rights and responsibilities it entails, to the nation’s children.
When the historically sedimented fears around identity intersect with an abandoned and indifferent citizenry, the possibility of hate, division and violence increase exponentially. We have to accept the uncomfortable truth that the instances of violence – such as the recent attacks on Ahmadis – are not exceptional moments, but are part of a pervasive culture of cruelty, marked by anxieties, rage and indifference to the suffering of others. There is, however, an alternative vision of nationalism stemming from the French Revolution that is steeped in the ideals of social justice, and where entitlement to citizenship is permitted through a shared set of values in the present, rather than an affinity to a mythical past.
Perhaps the way out of this horror is to revive such a collective vision of citizenship premised on solidarity and social justice, and geared towards building a new world where today’s vulnerable feel they fully belong. Otherwise, we might enter an era where the only response to the suffering of others (if one is not the agent of that suffering) involves taking measures for individual safety to shield oneself from the suffering on display. We must do better for the sake of our future generations.
The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.