By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
October 05, 2012
ONE of the more popular narratives that circulate within intellectual circles and high society in this country has to do with the gradual ‘depoliticisation’ of society over the past few decades.
Most analyses trace the story back to the institutional, social and economic changes that took place during the Ziaul Haq years which have culminated in widespread cynicism and a popular narrative that condemns politics as such.
I agree firmly with the general observation that anti-politics attitudes exist in this country, particularly amongst influential segments of society. The cynicism that underlies the operation of the public sphere is one of the most prominent features of our social landscape.
Idealism is conspicuous by its absence, aside from the notable exception of radical Islamists who, rhetorically at least, seek to model society along the lines of that which has already passed. In short, a powerful argument can apparently be made that ‘depoliticisation’ is one of the most significant impediments to change in Pakistan today.
Except that clumping all of the aforementioned symptoms under the broad term ‘depoliticisation’ actually obfuscates more than it illuminates. Pakistan is, in fact, a highly politicised society — some might even say over-politicised. By insisting that a majority of Pakistanis are apolitical, we not only do a great injustice to actually existing reality but also rule out the construction of a viable and popular ‘way out’.
To start with, large numbers of ordinary people in this land of the pure take an inordinate interest in the everyday business of politics, by choice or otherwise.
Negotiation and conflict over everything from resources to honour takes place across the length and breadth of society, on a daily basis. That most of this ‘politics’ is not viewed as such by those who participate in it is unexceptional. In the popular worldview, politics is the occupation only of politicians.
Pakistanis are not the only people in the world who regularly express their disgust at the ‘dirty business’ of politics. What is distinctive about societies such as ours is not, therefore, the fact that we are more or less ‘depoliticised’ than others. Instead, one of the most — if not the most — distinctive features of social contexts such as ours is the deeply political nature of most social relationships. This speaks both to the inequality that runs rife through society and the nature of the repository of power in society, the state.
It is important to try and understand ‘the political’ in its proper historical context. The field of politics in the pre-British period was limited in the sense that the ordinary Indian inhabited a geographically confined world characterised by relatively stable albeit unequal social relationships. With the establishment of the colonial state — especially the instrument of law — the field of politics expanded dramatically.
This is explained on the one hand by the incorporation of Indian society into a burgeoning capitalist world economy, and on the other hand by the fact that state institutions such as the Thana (police station) and Katchehri (court) started to become permanent features of social life.
The story of agricultural land captures both aspects of this transformation: once it became a saleable commodity, conflicts over land become exceedingly common, thereby creating the conditions for the state to intervene in these conflicts in the name of maintaining public order.
Meanwhile, it was also under the Raj that social identities such as caste, religion, biraderi and ethnicity were politicised in qualitatively new ways. Indians competed with one another on the basis of one or the other such identity for the scarce political and economic spoils that the British distributed. On the occasions that the tenuous compromise between the state and its subjects fractured, these same identities were radicalised with often devastating effect.
The narrative of ‘the political’ has become even more complex in the post-colonial period. State nationalism has filtered down to every nook and cranny of society, while resistance has also ebbed and flowed. Thanas and Katchehris have sprung up where they did not previously exist while capital has penetrated farther and deeper than was possible during colonial rule.
It is not as if ordinary people have remained passive recipients of everything that has been thrown at them from above. The understanding of and means of engaging with ‘the political’ have also evolved from below.
It should not be forgotten that throughout the entire modern period, the powers-that-be have always denigrated politics, even while both the colonial and post-colonial projects of the state and its propertied allies in society have been anything but apolitical.
Gen Ziaul Haq was no different in this regard. For all of the dictator’s claims, Pakistani society was arguably politicised more during those 11 years than any other period.
That this politicisation took place along parochial lines is an important detail, but either way the narrative of ‘depoliticisation’ misses the point entirely.
We are still living down the legacy of the ‘Mard-i-Momin’. But then again we are also living down the legacy of colonialism and all the dictatorial regimes that followed it.
These experiences have indelibly shaped our understanding of ‘the political’ and the everyday political norms that all of us uphold, consciously or otherwise.
Yet the many popular struggles to defend the basic freedoms and dignity of humanity have also shaped us. It is our challenge to build upon the progressive principles that have been gleaned from these struggles to construct an image of ‘the political’ that goes beyond the cynicism and despair of the present and takes us towards a future of hope and collective progress.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad