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February 15, 2018

Pakistan’s iron lady


February 15, 2018

In death – as in life – she inspires strong reactions across familiar ideological faultlines. Barely hours after Asma Jahangir’s passing, a debate raged on social media about how she should be remembered. And how, if at all, should we honour her.

While social media buzzed with hashtags calling for a state funeral, also quite vociferous were those who were celebrating her passing and calling her unpatriotic. Who are these people and why would someone who has fought all forms of social justice over four decades become an object of hatred? Let us venture a guess.

There were no statutory guarantees that a tolerant society would follow the restoration of democracy a decade ago. Decades of depoliticisation and a failed educational system have created a generation of millennials with a deep sense of deprivation; iron-like certainties; and a collage of conspiracy theories for a worldview.

A few days before Asma Jahangir’s passing, the killers of Mashal Khan who were acquitted in court were greeted like conquering heroes. These images did the rounds on social media, with approximately equal amounts of scorn and admiration. It seemed that there are two Pakistans existing concurrently in a shared space and time.

Cults of redemptive violence seem to have replaced political activism and young men are increasingly more vulnerable to fantasies of transcending their boredom and disaffection through a catharsis of violence rather than joining a political movement.

It is ironic that a debate like this could not have been had under the iron heel of General Zia’s dictatorship – Pakistan’s darkest hour, but for many like Asma Jahangir, their finest – when all forms of social expression were banned by a military politburo that ruled us in God’s name. Unbeknownst to her enemies, this luxury of a public debate on her legacy has only been made possible because of the political struggle of Asma Jahangir and many like her.

Now that the iron lady has been lowered into her grave, one question should haunt us all: Who does Pakistan’s future belong to? With endless reservoirs of cynicism, boredom and discontent, and nothing progressive on offer in the market place of ideas, more and more disaffected men and women are surrendering themselves to movements that resemble rebellions and advocate nihilism.

The internet age has certainly led to a growing demand for instant gratification and, therefore, a greater mismatch between personal expectations and the ability to realise them. The information we have is far greater than the choices before us. With a greater desire for brand names and status symbols, growing levels of poverty, and pitiful social progress – along with shrinking attention spans and the allure of instant fame – there are fewer and fewer takers for the seemingly unresponsive promise of gradual change and incremental victories.

Supporting causes increasingly finds expression in likes and shares on social media rather than sustained activism based on a bedrock of ideological commitment.As we head towards electing our third successive democratic government, the curtain comes down on a certain form of ideological commitment. She was the best among us and her absence will be felt like a gaping hole. Who now will bridge these myriad faultlines between disaffection and action; rage and redemption; desire and opportunity; and powerlessness and fantasies of cultural domination? These discontents of our age, seen as widening gaps and faultlines, may prove more formidable in Pakistan’s ongoing march to democracy than any number of military dictatorships.

The writer is the co-founder of Pakistan For All.

Twitter: @ShaanTaseer

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