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Now or never

The whispers are growing louder: why is it that Punjab remains largely peaceful while Balochistan, KP and Sindh continue to be ravaged by an unending spiral of violence? Insofar as so-called Talibanisation needs to be dealt with, why is the Punjabi contribution to the phenomenon ignored in mainstream intellectual, media and political discourses? Why is it that ‘crises’ in the country’s biggest province remain limited to power and gas shortages?

It is a measure of the priorities of our ruling class that all hands were on deck following the blowing up of a gas supply line in Rahim Yar Khan earlier this week. Pakistani governments are not known to be efficient or sensitive to the needs of ordinary people, yet within 72 hours gas supply was restored to both domestic consumers and industrial units in Punjab. Needless to say, such quick-time responses are conspicuous by their absence in the long-suffering peripheries.

Of course, there are millions of Punjabis who remain subjugated by the system. Indeed, they may even constitute an absolute majority of the working poor. But invoking such facts cannot conceal the brute reality of the structure of power in Pakistan, which is ethnically skewed in favour of Punjab. Other ethnic groups may be willing junior partners — Pakhtuns and Mohajirs merit notable mention — but the buck starts and stops in Punjab.

Structures, by definition, are all-encompassing. No one stands outside them; the fortunes of winners and losers are intricately and dialectically connected. So Punjabi domination in Pakistan means a better life — even if only slightly — for those who live in Punjab in comparison to those who do not.

Again, this is not to discount the horrendous discrimination and exploitation to which Punjab’s menial castes, religious minorities and subordinate classes in general — not to mention working class women — are subjected. It is precisely the fact that there is oppression in Punjab that should provide common cause between Punjabis and everyone else. Indeed, a truly emancipatory politics in contemporary Pakistan demands a bridging of the ethnic divide.

Unfortunately, objective possibilities do not always crystallise into practical realities. As this column is being written, the brave loved ones of Baloch political activists who have been disappeared, sometimes tortured and killed by the state are entering Lahore. The ‘long march’ that the mainstream media refuses to talk about has been ongoing for more than 100 days, dwarfing the more fashionable varieties spearheaded by lawyers in 2008 and Tahirul Qadri some 12 months ago.

In their travels through Balochistan, Sindh and the Seraiki region, the marchers were greeted warmly by political activists, intellectuals, artists, trade unionists and ordinary people. In some small towns more than 1,000 people joined the symbolic and unprecedented protest. In the face of a virtual blackout by the corporate media, word of the long march has been spread by those committed to the cause over social media etc.

It is not, therefore, as if a reasonably wide cross-section of informed Punjabis do not know about the issue of missing persons or the fact that a march to draw attention to the most gruesome of crimes against humanity has entered Punjab. Baloch and other oppressed nations are arguably predisposed to assuming the worst about Punjab and Punjabis; given this backdrop the long marchers have received a not insignificant welcome. Yet it would not be incorrect to suggest that, in some parts of the province if not all, the response has been little better than lukewarm.

It might be clichéd but there is no hope for Pakistan if a critical mass of Punjabis do not put their weight behind a genuine counter-hegemonic ideology and politics. The so-called lawyers movement was centred in Punjab and raised great expectations but, even if it was not clear at the time, it is obvious in retrospect that right-wing forces were its major beneficiaries.

Speaking up against the excesses of a predominantly Punjabi establishment in its brutalisation of the Baloch is as clear a political stand in favour of structural change in this country as there can be. So it was in 1971 when the same establishment was engaging in unspeakable acts of retribution against Bengalis. Then the reaction in Punjab was muted. Now it’s only marginally better.

The long marchers still have to traverse another 300 kilometres, and that too through the region that has long been the heartland of the Pakistani army. There is, as such, still an opportunity to demonstrate both that Punjab has learnt the lessons of history and is willing to give up some of its privilege and make Pakistan more of a level playing field. It is truly a case of now or never.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, "Now or never," Dawn. 2014-02-14.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Government-Pakistan , Military-Pakistan , Politics-Pakistan , Politicians , Taliban , Politics , Tahirul Qadri , Balochistan , Pakistan