Smokers’ Corner: Che, cola and hijab
Here’s a fascinating series of ironies: Folks who for years were known to scorn at and work against anything to do with populist political reformism and revolution during the Cold War have suddenly started turning up on TV and chanting for a revolution. Being from the right-wing of the conventional ideological divide in this country, it is not surprising to see them doing so during a time when Pakistan is not under a dictatorship, but struggling under a shaky democracy.
Instigating a revolution and rebellion usually means taking a principled or passionate stand against the status quo, or going against a largely held narrative which the rebel accuses of being a lie constructed to keep a repressed populace sedated. But if one listens to newborn revolutionaries like the Jamat-i-Islami (JI), the Tehreek-i-Insaaf (TI), the ‘hawks’ in the PML-N, and talk show hosts and their largely urban middle-class audiences (masquerading as ‘common people’), one can easily realise that the revolutionary mantra emerging from them is nothing more than the kind of chauvinistic rhetoric that the state itself began devising after the 1971 debacle in the former East Pakistan.
In other words, unlike in the past, today’s ‘revolutionaries’ in Pakistan are not fist clenching leftist outsiders facing wave upon wave of resistance, repression and ridicule from the state, the government, the right-wing press and urban middle-class morality. Today’s revolutionaries are usually middle-aged men and women who played into the hands of reactionary avengers in 1977 to topple a democratically elected prime minister and paved the way for an equally reactionary dictatorship.
They then spent their time sitting pretty during the tyranny, gazing at their navels about the ‘strategic importance’ of the United States’ aid to that dictatorship against the spread of ‘chaos’ in the shape of godless communism and liberal democracy. The young among this lot of revolutionaries are those who, after living a life under the sword of unprecedented carnage and terrorism by psycho flag wavers of the faith, are venting out their frustration by barking up the wrong tree. They punch away at politicians for discharging huge loads of corruption and economic crisis upon their fragile heads, but the same heads are cluttered with the most airy ideas about reform and revolution. If rebellion is someone challenging a prevailing narrative that he or she accuses of being a lie then, I am afraid, none of these middle-aged and young rebels are revolutionaries. They are not offering any alternative narrative or ideas to stem the economic and political rot this country has been besieged with.
On the contrary, when you hear them talking about revolutionary change, theirs is a spiel constructed by all the muscle-flexing, chauvinistic hoopla about ‘patriotism’ and nationalism, first constructed by the state to soften the blow the nation suffered in 1971. They then fatten this old-school, state-constructed narrative with stuff that was once anathema to them: i.e. left-wing populism and symbolism.
So what you get are young middle-class urbanites, talk show hosts and certain middle-aged politicians carelessly fusing Marx with Maududi, Osama with Che and the so-called common man’s tragedies with what is actually the eternal and traditional Pakistani middle-class grudge against anything smacking of democracy. Democracies, no matter how flawed, are not toppled by revolutions. History teaches us that they are floored by military dictatorships. However, it is military dictatorships and assorted tyrannies that generate revolutionary opposition.
Whereas it is natural for one to become a revolutionary under the yoke of a usurping dictatorship, it is only wise for a disgruntled soul to simply vote out a flawed democratic government. Even in a revolution there are no immediate solutions. No matter how much blood is shed in its name, revolutionaries from 19th century France to 20th century Russia and China, all had to come down to earth to find solutions beyond lofty rhetoric, slogans and massacres.
In a country like Pakistan, brimming with ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity and interests, it is only logical to conclude that much of the economic, political and social turmoil that it faces can only be sorted out by finally allowing democracy its innings. Democracy cannot be allowed to get derailed by lofty middle-class romanticism, morality and frustrations — attributes that have over and over again been manipulated and exploited, sometimes in the name of faith, sometimes in the name of order by those who are the real architects of most of the tragedies that have befallen this country.
So how seriously should one take the current middle-class mantra of revolution? Not really, because one can only smirk sceptically when one sees a charged debate on the need for a revolution on TV taking a commercial break to run the many soap, detergent, ice-cream and facial cream products that are sponsoring the debate. For the new revolutionary, Che, cola and hijab truly have become one. Lord have mercy.