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September 23, 2014



Questions and answers

In 2006, a triangular debate over democracy in Pakistan was published in these oped pages. S Akbar Zaidi provoked readers by asking, tongue-in-cheek, why the army should be blamed for repeat interventions when people invite them by abusing politicians. When our intellectual elite glorifies the idea of unelected and outsourced technocratic experts running the country. And when civil society cooperates and collaborates with military regimes. (‘Why blame the military?’ Nov 28, 2006).
Columnist Shafqat Mahmood (now with the PTI) missed the irony, took umbrage and responded by asking why people should be blamed for the army’s over-ambitious breaches and usurpation of democratic civilian governance (‘Why blame the people?’ December 1, 2006). Of course, this is incredibly ironic, given the recent accusations that the PTI may have been a client of, or solicited some elements of, the military establishment to play the infamous ‘umpire’ that Imran Khan referred to when promising to bring the current government down last month.
Presciently, just a few months prior to the dharna melees, Zaidi once again provoked angry patriotism when he asked if the military’s power was in fact, “waning” in Pakistan. He argued that in any case, their hegemonic power was receding and warned that an injured animal bites. Predictably, there was much hate-mail in response.
As a third and lesser commentator in this discussion, in 2006 my question in this debate was tangential. I had asked why in this debate of army vs people we tend to absolve the market and its role. (‘Why absolve the market?’ Dec 5, 2006). By this I meant that global and local economies have a deep influence on democratic institutions and relations. The point being that free-markets really don’t care about democracy or dictatorship – they can embed themselves just about anywhere without concern for any freedoms except the ones to buy and sell products.
The base argument all three of us

made, however, was in support of a democracy, no matter how tainted or conducive to corruption, that should be free of army influence and dictation.
But a new generation of political activists are not interested in such questions. Maybe there’s a genuine generational shift and the Imran Khan Tribe just doesn’t want to either ask or answer these. After all, most of them have consciences shaped by post-Musharraf democratic sensibility, free-ish media, incredible intergenerational mobility and access under the globalisation that everyone loves to hate.
Perhaps they aren’t interested or concerned about what democracy means beyond electoral procedures and a moral feel-good, pious, be-happy, in the moment, musical political hope that Obama rode the crest of. It’s an Islamically appropriate Woodstock without the politics or rather, post-politics. The pretence of an audacious, even radical, agenda pursued through Facebook rhetoric, venting and political thesis in 140 wise-ass characters that fight for the last word sums up their notion of making Change happen.
While many harsh words have been reserved for this IK Tribe of Trolls, yet other ‘intellectuals’ or radicals from the same generation are not so far behind. Their politics too, consists of a rejection of the pollutant and compromised voters of the PML or the liberals who vote for the PPP or, members of the neoliberal NGO sector or women’s groups and human rights activists who act as native informants and are collaborators of imperialism. These ‘scholar-activists’ are serial rejectionists too.
It’s funny, though, how the politics of these new radicals and their blogs and electronic magazines, docu-films and inner-circle conferences is just a more western tech-savvy version of old world NGO style newsletters, docu-films of limited circulation and workshops and seminars. Still, the pretence of being politically radical by simply rubbishing something called liberalism, secularism and democracy with no references or material citations just a hunch and personalised gossip offers no alternative so, why should the IK dupes be under such pressure to show and tell their alternative route to Change?
Some of these commentators even attempt to rewrite history in a vacuum that only recalls Musharraf-style democracy rather than the military’s institutional interests and religious consciousness. They lend credence to the idea that democracy is a polluting import and liberal democracy is a conspiracy against people’s liberation. They argue that since 2001, a global ‘war on terror’ has been waged under a grand narrative of secularism and civilisation combating Islamic fundamentalism.
But hold on…exactly what ‘secular’ narrative was being pursued in Pakistan in 2001? Musharraf had come in 1999. The narrative of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalism and the TTP did not arise until 2004. The religious, not secular alliance of the MMA became a sanitised, ‘democratically’ legitimate player that wrought havoc in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (2002-2008) with a free hand. And the icing – through what democratic mask did the US ‘dovetail’ an imposed alliance with Pakistan in 2001 when, in fact, two democratic leaders were in exile and a uniformed general was in place and continued to rule for the next seven years?
The Imran Khan Children (I refer generationally not necessarily to his followers) suffer from a disease that Stuart Hall sums up here; “We suffer increasingly from a process of historical amnesia in which we think that just because we are thinking about an idea it has only just started.”
The civil-military impasse continues to haunt an older generation of social scientists. But for those who would inhabit a Naya Pakistan, we may be asking the wrong questions about army, people, markets and democracy.
The attention deficit disorder of such new politics means drone warfare, as the epitome of liberal-secular anti-sovereignty evil, has fallen off the map. Other boring, unresolved, ‘exaggerated’ liberal issues include the blasphemy laws, capital punishment, no domestic violence legislation, Qisas and Diyat which exonerates honour crimes and jihadist organisations and their growing murderous politics.
All these are so insular and non-imperialistic (even if very effective) that they don’t warrant attention, except for the bleeding heart liberals who have nothing better to do but worry about such lesser issues.
This generation isn’t interested in asking questions about these structural concerns and we shouldn’t blame them if they deflect the blame onto the old democracy, old Pakistan, the older generation. But we should worry that this shifting of blame all around will not resolve the questions that will not go away.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]