The weekend that went by showed well the dichotomies and contradictions inherent in today’s Pakistan: a land (with apologies to Charles Dickens) of two separate societies — one apparently conservative, rigid and orthodox; the other presumably liberal, progressive and willing to change. Of course, it could easily be argued that the liberals in Pakistan are perhaps as illiberal as the extremists they deride, because like the latter they (the liberals), too, are rigid in their views, especially of those who disagree with them and have a different worldview. However, there is a crucial difference between those on the right and the left and that is in the degree of violence and force used by a group to thrust its ideology on others. This is something that usually those on the right of the political spectrum do, especially the ones allied with the countries religious parties. Those on the left, usually, may have positions that are as inflexible as the conservatives, but they do not use force to convince others of the validity and/or pre-eminence of their opinions/beliefs.
Of course, one speaks of all this keeping in mind that this past weekend, the country’s largest city, Karachi, played host to two distinctively separate — in fact opposed — events. The first was the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) which was attended mostly by thousands of the city’s well heeled elite and had a smattering of international well-known writers and intellectuals in attendance. Such events provide the city’s English-speaking elite with some much-needed public space/platform to gather and perhaps, heave a collective sigh of relief that there are others around in Pakistan, like them, who share the same worldview.
The other event that took place was the rally of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), which was held on February 12. It was attended by a moderately large crowd and this is worrying — certainly for the likes of those who would have attended the KLF — because its main components include the Jamaatud Dawa and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, now retooled as the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. It also includes the likes of Ejazul Haq, Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed and former ISI chief Hamid Gul, leading to a wide public perception that perhaps, the Council is an alternative platform through which the military sends signals to civilians.
Let’s take a look at the agenda of the DPC. It calls specifically for a continuation of the ban on Nato trucks passing through Pakistan, vowing to stop them by any means necessary should the government permit them to operate. This is part of a generally anti-American agenda that centres on supporting both the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban as a legitimate resistance to the US. At a time when our relations with the US, whose aid keeps the country afloat, are at their lowest ebb, a group such as the Council taking on this role — as a defender of the nation — reinforces the suspicion that perhaps, it is part of a larger agenda, with a higher authority. On other key issues as well, the Council’s view is quite similar to that espoused by Pakistan’s hawks. For instance, one of its key points is that the decision to grant India the Most Favoured Nation status should be taken back, because India has always been and will always be Pakistan’s arch-enemy. Juxtapose this with the KLF, where several participants and attendees said time and again that India and Pakistan need to loosen their visa regimes so that travel across the border could become easier (one participant also mentioned that the Pakistan correspondents for both The Hindu as well as the Press Trust of India were denied permission to travel from their base in Islamabad to cover the festival).
So the question arises; what can be done about these two Pakistans? In an ideal world one would want some kind of dialogue between the two sides, or at the very least, tolerance for each other’s opinions and worldviews. The media could play an interlocutory role in this regard, though much of it, presently, seems aligned with the right — or else it will just be a case of (which it is) preaching to the converted. And it is here that the country’s political parties, especially the PPP which is in theory a socialist left-leaning party, must take the lead in reclaiming public space for moderate ideas and worldviews.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2012.