From the yak herders of Shimshal to the freedom fighters of Baloch, the trade unionists of Faisalabad, the fisherfolk of Gwadar, poets in Gilgit, and the farmers fighting for their land in Okara, the stories in this book offer a wide range of moving and significant developments in Pakistan which are rarely discussed in such depth and range. Pakistanis are alive despite the best attempts to decimate them, says the introduction. And that’s an extraordinary feat. A poem by Habib Jalib puts it rather well: “Unaware of the protocols of the King’s Court, sometimes one must dance with chains on.”
And that is what common people in Pakistan seem to be doing unnoticed for the large part by the media, which seems to be focusing on death, destruction and political events and rarely delving any deeper. The book attempts to “enter the conversation about Pakistan on those issues that make the headlines, but more than that: it attempts to introduce the reader to the less covered dimensions of Pakistani life to its potential for other lives, its promise of hopeful revolutions.”
While “uncovering the complex skeleton of Pakistani society”, it is important to understand the role of the military and Ayesha Siddiqa observes that while political parties and politicians have failed to establish a strong counter narrative, the military has successfully marketed itself and its national security narrative. In fact the military’s control of national politics depends on its ability to constantly reproduce its image as an alternative institution. The military is here to stay in a dominant role, she argues.
The book does not touch on Indo-Pak peace which is our national obsession, but talks about the people and politics in Pakistan. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar touches on the difficulties of writing about Pakistan without digressing into superficial narratives of religious militancy and the vagaries of regional geopolitics after the sensational discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011. He notes that as elsewhere in the world the NGO revolution has served to legitimise post cold war intellectual and political trends rather than facilitate counter hegemony.
The story of the Okara farmers fighting against military might to claim their land is not well known outside. The AMP or Association of tenant farmers of Punjab had as their slogan “mulki ya maut” (ownership or death) and, as the writer Saadia Toor says, it has become an enduring symbol of successful subaltern resistance to the most powerful institution in the country. At a million strong, the AMP is the largest genuinely grassroots social movement in Pakistan’s social history and yet has no connection with Islam, jihad or sectarian militancy. It also defies stereotypes, with women being in the forefront of the agitation for land rights.
The book emphasises the central role of the Pakistani military establishment, and as the Saadia Toor says, it should be abundantly clear by now that any effort to understand Pakistan’s current problems, the fragility of its democracy, the corruption of its politics, the weakness of social and political institutions, and the issue of religious extremism and militancy, must begin and end with the Pakistani military establishment.
Toor also sheds light on the dubious NGO elite who supported war and dictatorship to serve their ends. She says any notion that Musharraf was a champion of women’s rights should have been decisively shattered by his relationship with the Muttahida Majlis i Amal or (MMA), the alliance of right wing political parties which won majorities in Sarhad and Baluchistan for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Crucially she drives home the point that the liberal support for Zardari and the PPP is mystifying unless one realises that Pakistani liberal politics are essentially about the liberal elite’s self-preservation.
Bonded labour, sometimes passed on from one generation to the next, suppression of trade union activity, the killing of those who were active in unions as in the case of Mustansar Randhawa of the Labour Qaumi Movement in Faisalabad, all contribute to the increasing oppression, inequality and unrest. This is juxtaposed with the huge development of cities and their accoutrements in the form of luxury shopping malls, supermarkets and cinemas which the poor can ill afford. The essay on Imran Khan is amusing and analytical and there are gripping stories of Baloch nationalism, the situation in Swat and Waziristan which one rarely reads about. The 16 essays include views on the U.S.-Pakistan alliance, the populism of Pakistan’s fundamentalism, feminism and “fundamentalism”, a chapter on Punjab, art and poetry. The book is a valuable contribution to the understanding of a troubled country from well-known writers and journalists who have travelled and experienced first-hand many of the ominous developments.
(Meena Menon is Chief of Bureau of The Hindu in Mumbai)