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Why Usman Dar Must Publicly Apologise For Deplorable Remarks Against Pashtuns

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Nothing highlights how far the Pakistani state lags behind in accepting the diversity of its many ethno-linguistic, national and religious groups more than the racist and demeaning jokes that political leaders and other talking heads casually resort to on TV. Most such humour is based on stereotypes of historically marginalized – or less dominant? – groups.

Some well-meaning voices have pointed out the consequences of such demeaning attitudes in 1971, when the majority of the country’s population chose to secede from it – a singular occurrence in modern history.

It is now commonly known how much West Pakistani rulers despised the Bengali people on racial grounds. If we were to list out the outrages against the people of former East Pakistan by everyone from the rulers (bureaucrats, military dictators and politicians) to common people, it would require an entire book.

Yet such lessons don’t seem to matter very much to PTI leader Usman Dar, who happens to be Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Youth Affairs and Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme. Based on his remarks about certain members of the opposition, his closest reference point for the country’s second-biggest national group is that of “Pathans” peddling goods on the street, who have to be haggled with.

When asked about the future of #AzadiMarch on a talk show, Usman Dar had stated that the future course of action would be similar to how “Pathans do business”, wherein they sell a Rs 500 blanket for Rs 50. He faced backlash on social media and users rightly urged PM Imran Khan to take notice of the derogatory comments made by his adviser.

Unfortunately, casual bigotry informs the views of many in the ruling party. This includes the Prime Minister himself, whose remarks on Africans are unsuitable for any mainstream political leader – least of all one who has seen as much of the world as he does, and of which he never fails to remind us. It seems he is quite comfortable with gathering around him a star-studded cast of individuals with deplorable views.

More recently, we have also seen the disgusting effort by prominent voices from the ruling party to stir up controversy around “shiq number 6” – a reference taken from a fake directive which was attributed to the JUI-F leadership, seeking to regulate homosexual activities among opposition protesters. Such slander played on racial-sexual anxieties as well as a cruel contempt for relatively poor segments of the population that end up in madrassah seminaries.

But of course, the PTI are not the only ones to deal in such poisonous wares. Few will have forgotten the racism injected by the MQM into Karachi’s body politic or the appalling remarks by the PML-N’s Shehbaz Sharif about “Kiranchi” and those who chew “paan”. And we have not yet even begun to unpack the sectarian and religious poison that Pakistan’s political class and unelected forces have casually promoted – all in exchange for a few thousand votes here and a dubious strategic gain there.

The Pashtuns, being in the unique position of being neither a dominant nor totally marginalized national group, are forced to bear the heavy burden of two linked stereotypes. On the one hand they are required to be the Noble-If-Somewhat-Rough Northerners on whom Pakistan can always rely.

On the other hand, they are to be the ethnic and cultural ‘Other’ against whom the Pakistani mainstream defines itself.

A more pernicious version of this stereotyping even drives the country’s strategic posture towards the Pashtun belt extending from western Pakistan into Afghanistan: i.e. Strategic Depth. This posture inherits the British Empire’s view of the Pashtuns as being both “noble, free savages” and “excitable, dangerous fanatics” – depending on the interests of the Empire or its successors at any given time. Such a view drove the Great Game, the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and the very concept of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The idea, in a nutshell, has been that a certain people collectively possess a number of virtues and flaws which require authorities to make specialized provisions to govern, control and punish them as needed.

This will all have to change, if Pakistan is to move on from its painful history of ethno-linguistic grievances, insurgency, separatism and violence.

On the level of public policy, actual respect has much to do with performances of respect. We have seen, thanks to the rise of the New Right globally (of which PTI is just one example), that powerful people being “honest” about how they feel about various groups is often ugly. Perhaps we could do with a little less “honesty” from top officials in governments like those of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Imran Khan.

For a start, people in positions of power, such as Usman Dar, will have to learn that their deplorable humour must be restricted to the private domain, if that is who they are. You cannot demean large segments of the Pakistani people in public and then demand absolute loyalty, unflinching support and immense sacrifices.

If you fail to offer a real stake in Pakistan – not just in political and economic affairs but also in matters of dignity – then you strike at the very foundations of this country. And that is an awkward place to be for political forces like the PTI that have made so much of theatrical nationalism and sabre-rattling jingoism.


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Naya Daur