The recent abuse of police power at Lahore’s premier hub of arts is a sad reminder of how ‘culture’ is under attack from the state and vigilantes alike. The rough handling of a woman curator at the Nairang Gallery is not an isolated incident. There is an unfortunate history of attacks on artists and cultural spaces in Pakistan.
According to reports, last week a senior police official barged into the gallery and harassed and assaulted a woman, later accusing her of wearing improper clothes and labelled the gallery’s work as ‘fahashi’ (vulgarity). Eyewitness accounts suggest that the official, a local SHO, at first picked on a couple and questioned why they were sitting together! Later, he barged into a rehearsal of a Bharatanatyam dance performance; and assaulted the female curator of the gallery who asked why the SHO was intruding in the activities of the gallery. Even the staff members who intervened to rescue the young woman were reportedly thrashed.
Later, when the well-known architect’s (who runs the gallery) son inquired about the misconduct of the police official, he was taken to the local police station to be “hung upside down”. He was released later, thankfully without much harm. This incident has left a big question mark on whether freedom to run cultural institutions without the ‘ideological’ endorsement of the state is possible anymore.
Nairang Gallery is the brainchild of the globally acclaimed Nayyar Ali Dada and its ethos runs counter to the Zia era’s policies of turning Pakistan into a fundamentalist desert. Nairang hosts weekly meetings of literary giants and thinkers. The space is also used for various study groups and allows for plural, progressive debates. In addition, the gallery showcases contemporary art and music. However, all such activities are endangered in times when state-nurtured jihadis have become more powerful than the state and have infiltrated the minds of the policemen.
The late Salmaan Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, is a case is point. A member of a highly trained elite police force, he was abetted by his colleagues in committing a murder to eliminate a public figure who stood up against the tyranny of blasphemy laws. Unfortunately, the Punjab government is yet to take any concrete steps to cleanse the special police force of the bigotry, which has now become a fact of life in Pakistan.
In recent years, Punjab has witnessed the rise of sectarian and militant outfits, including the Tehreek- i-Taliban Pakistan, who have been appeased on various occasions by the leadership of the party that rules the province. A recent report entitled “Madrassahs fanning radicalism” was reportedly forwarded by the Punjab Home Department to the police and civil administration, urging regulation of mainstream madrassas “to ensure protection of civil society from radicalisation and sectarian polarisation.” Punjab is a haven for sectarian and radical ideologues who have full freedom, and some say protection, to carry on with their hate-business.
In this larger context, Nairang Gallery is a threat to purists and fanatics. Police behaviour is also reflective of how state functionaries are either radicalised or helpless before the rising tide of Islamism. However, this incident should not be brushed aside or forgotten. Pakistan’s civil society and progressive voices in the media should guard the shrinking public spaces and call for a wider reform of the police force and should demand a crackdown on extremist outfits which are busy infiltrating the civil and military institutions. Pakistan will cease to exist if its pluralism and secular traditions are further eroded.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2011.