Start the discourse

May 3, 2015

There are only two narratives in Pakistan -- both extreme

Start the discourse

Every society, at some level, celebrates heroic deeds and individuals responsible for them. Some say that all societies need heroes. That may or may not be true but what has to be true is that a society can avoid ordinary people being killed -- and then turned into heroes. They never asked for it and yet this mantle of martyrdom and heroism is thrust upon them.

Truth and courage should be celebrated for the life that these things inject into discourse -- rather than being remembered through vigils of mourning. That is the kind of society Pakistan is turning into. Its ordinary citizens are being turned into heroes, for the unfortunate reason that they were gunned down for refusing to be gagged. That is not the kind of heroism you want your children to aspire for. No matter how fearless or ambitious you may be, no one wants to be a name on a placard or the face on a banner announcing a death. Lives cut short, and often only for refusing to accept a narrative, should not be our idea of heroism.

But regarding this heroism there are two Pakistans. The extremes on the right and the extremes on the left. The ones on the right of the political spectrum feel that Pakistan is the victim of a great conspiracy by our enemies and some of the world’s great powers. Hence, this worldview seeks to explain each plight of ours by linking it to the vices of American foreign policy or India’s maneuverings. This is true for everything from the war against terror to the situation in Balochistan.

Then there is the Pakistan of the extreme left. As per this worldview, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and the military’s interests explain everything that is wrong with Pakistan. And this logic, rather astoundingly, is extended to each instance. Therefore, everything from state’s gagging of speech to attempted murders of journalists and actual murders of citizens speaking up are blamed on the "deep state". But is it possible that this narrative is just as short-sighted as the view of the far right? It too espouses a particular view of society, sets it as a goal and then blames everything counter to their own narrative on the main villains.

Hence in the two Pakistans that exist there are always two sets of actors to blame: it is either other countries identified as enemies or the military and its agencies. Just let that sink in. Those are the only two things dominating our discourse when it comes to explanations. Maybe, there are times when these limited world-views will not offer a complete answer. And maybe there are nuances and complications within these narratives that we have not explored. Consider the tragic murder of Sabeen Mahmud. It has been mind-boggling as to how many people simply assumed that the killing was ordered by intelligence agencies. I will not argue for or against laying the blame on anyone -- but maybe we need to think harder before assuming that our political narrative explains every tragedy.

The real tragedy is that this society, despite two such passionately held worldviews, can still not do anything to protect its citizens. Investigation into Mahmud’s murder is, reportedly, pointing towards religious extremists being behind the attack. Now you will either accept that or mock it -- not based on an actual appreciation of the evidence, but based on your own politics. A pre-determined world-view -- unflinching, unrelenting in which you have the answers and the others (left or right) as the case may be are the naïve, the ignorant ones. We need to break this mould and come up with a way of bridging this gap.

As I have said in this space before, our government, our military and all our intelligence agencies (civil and military) need to adopt more openness to controversial topics. They don’t have to be driven by principle but merely the desire to preserve a society -- at home and abroad. When the state and its organs refuse to consider alternatives to their established positions, it allows non-state actors (particularly religious extremists) to commit violent acts that then destabilise the state. This happens not just because of destabilisation inherent in violence but also because people start believing that the state and its agencies have turned violent. A state whose agencies get blamed for violent acts becomes a weak state. This is not to say that state agencies actually perpetrate violence -- but the fact that they are even blamed weakens the state at home and abroad.

It would be an excellent PR strategy for the military to say that it welcomes a national conference on Balochistan. All perspectives, including those relating to provincial autonomy, alleged abuse of state power and terrorism by separatists, can then be voiced. Things will balance themselves out. It would be great if principles alone motivated people but politics and reforms seldom work that way. Vested interests are, often, just as much part of the equation. The vested interest here for all of us is saving Pakistan. That is not a principle -- that is a strategic choice.

Those of the far left and the far right persuasions in Pakistan need a greater challenge to their narratives. As a seasoned journalist once told me, "there is not always a great wicked scheme behind events." The far left and the far right both look for the first opportunity to blame the villains in their stories. That is why there is such deep-division in this country. That is why there is a deadlock of progressive political thinking. With two powerful and opposite forces deeply entrenched, there can be little headway.

Maybe the first step in this whole exercise can be a refusal to accept our knee-jerk reactions. The left can stop blaming the state agencies for a tragic murder and can instead think about why their politics has not created a safer Pakistan. Are they excluding people and possibilities from their calculus? The right can start by taking some responsibility for its actions too -- and curtail its obsession with how much the world wants to destabilise Pakistan.

What we require, then, is a more nuanced narrative. And it can only happen if we start the discourse. Holding onto entrenched positions will only take us so far -- but it will take us deeper into the ground.

Start the discourse