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How PTM Exposed The Abnormality Of ‘Normal’ In Pakistan

On the freezing afternoon of 29 January, I joined a group of protesters at the Pakistan consulate in New York. We had assembled to protest against the arrest of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader Manzoor Pashteen which had taken place two days ago in Peshawar, Pakistan. PTM is an anti-war, nonviolent movement led by Pashtun youth against alleged state oppression and the terror inflicted by Taliban on their soil. As we protested against Pashteen’s arrest, a dozen men from the consulate holding the Pakistani flag appeared and began chanting ‘Hang Manzoor; hang that traitor.’

The five words were perhaps a pledge to the flag they so dearly and tightly held to their hearts. I knew about my country’s unsurprising lack of commitment to the protection of the human rights of its citizens, as I had worked as an intern in Summer 2014 at the United Nations. However, the utter disregard for the basic right to life of PTM’s leader who was arrested on trumped up charges and the normalization of criminality I witnessed that afternoon worried me. What I mean by ‘normalization’ is the routinization and acceptance by the state and society of anti-human ideologies and behaviors as legitimate, standard norms and practices.

Normalisation of state violence

State’s highhandedness is considered an inevitable ‘fact’ of life. Taliban killed 80,000 Pakistanis, most of whom were members of the country’s largest Pashtun ethnic minority. The Pashtuns also faced the fallout of the military operations ‘targeting’ the Taliban. They caused further death and destruction of Pashtuns in the northern areas. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; thousands were disappeared and many hundreds killed and maimed by landmines.

This chaos has also killed the youth, our soldiers, policemen, lawyers, teachers and nearly people from all walks of life. Towns, markets and schools in the Pashtun-populated regions have been destroyed. This violence was often justified in the name of ‘national security’.The assassination of one of the key leaders of PTM, Arif Wazir, by ‘unknown’ assailants and the media blackout of PTM coupled with the government’s complete apathy to the killing lends credibility to the movement’s suspicion.

Glorification of martyrdom to normalise deaths 

At the societal level, there has been a shockingly widespread tolerance of things without argument about how they should be. This predestined view of life is poignantly alarming when one looks at the individual’s relation to the state and its ideological and governing machines. Death has been normalised and accepted in the name of martyrdom or fate. Under this normalisation, one is told that people deserve what they get because they either commit a ‘crime’ by demanding their rights or just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is a tendency among people to believe that their life is shaped by chance and destiny, which are unalterable. But the truth is that most social and political circumstances that affect people are a product of man-made systems of ideas and structures. Most of these systems are established by men at the top of social hierarchies i.e. those who rule. However, the legitimacy and power of the systems last as long as the people give their consent to them. Theorist Gene Sharp argues that people obey the ruler because of habit, fear of sanctions, moral obligations and self-interest among other factors.

Because of these factors, people live within the lie as opposed to what Vaclav Havel termed ‘living within the truth.’ John Nevin avers one reason for living within the lie is ‘the inertia of affluence,’ i.e. those who have comfortable lives remain indifferent to change. This inertia is due to what Nevin calls ‘delay discounting’ i.e. if repercussions are distant and uncertain, their power to affect the current behavior of certain privileged groups is dramatically decreased. In Pakistan, people who don’t have a lived experience of state violence can’t care less about those whose lives have been ruined by blatant death and destruction for decades.

Ideology as the ‘binding substance’

Two factors play an important role in shaping the life of society: Cultural and structural systems of authority. ‘Cultural’ refers to hegemonic values, ideologies and beliefs, such as political and religious ideologies and ‘structural’ refers to the recognised seats of decision-making like parliament, judiciary, the police, military, bureaucracy, corporations, mosques, universities, etc. The cultural and structural go hand in hand: however, the real world is much more complex to fit in these analytical schemas.

Ideology is the most powerful cultural system of authority. Vaclav Havel in The Power of the Powerless says that ideology acts as the ‘binding substance’ and a kind of bridge between the regime and the people. It is across this bridge where the regime and the people approach each other. Without ideology acting as the regime’s all-embracing excuse and the excuse of each of its parts, ensuring the integrity and cohesiveness of the system would be unimaginable.

In Pakistan, the dominant Islamic ideology is the binding substance, the glue that holds the hybrid regime together. In a country that is full of paradoxes, Islamic ideology is ostensibly the overarching source of identity of the state and the people. It touches the personal and the political and nearly everything within the public sphere.

It the metaphysical ‘truth’ that can’t be questioned no matter what is done and justified on its basis. It is used to wage ‘holy’ wars, to control social imagination and mobilisation and to deter deviation from the popular, national script.

The popular script, shaped by the same ideology, is that we are one nation, one people because we share a common religion. It does not matter if there are ethnolinguistic differences and gross socioeconomic and political disparities among groups that make the whole. We are still ‘one’ people even if those on the periphery live in hunger, poverty and unending wars, as long as the core is safe, intact and prosperous. The development and safety of the province of Punjab populated by the dominant Punjabi ethnic group should be celebrated because after all, people from the periphery come here for studies or work.

The guardians of the metaphysical order come and go but the ideological script needed to maintain the order stays. The rules of the script are such that they don’t accommodate social and political inventiveness for change. It only adjusts automatism: Only those who conform to the order are believed to be ‘patriotic’ and go up the ladder of the power hierarchy. Those who resist and refuse to become cogs in the wheel of the oppressive ideological machine are dealt with naked use of force. In Pakistan, specifically the oppressed and the disadvantaged groups such as the Baloch and the Pashtuns are the most unfortunate victims of the brute force used to enforce this ideology.

Exposing the abnormality of normal

Manzoor Pashteen, the PTM chief, had been arrested (and later released) because he has exposed the abnormality of the normal that had gone unquestioned for far too long. His movement, employing nonviolent direct action, has held mass gatherings in most major cities of Pakistan. PTM has exposed the lies and excuses for this ideological edifice. It has demanded answers for unspeakable atrocities committed on the Pashtun land. It has questioned the shallowness of popular political imagination that feeds on the state’s ideological script.

No other struggle before PTM in the recent past of Pakistan challenged state’s flawed security policies. But PTM has uncovered the double standards and use of Islam for the interests of the elites. The movement has provided Pashtuns and other progressive Pakistanis a platform for a new political imagination.

In the past fifteen years, hundreds of Pashtun tribal leaders were killed because of their resistance to the Taliban. Such atrocities continued for years but went unreported as the only source of news coming out of the former tribal areas were the press briefings of the army’s media wing, Inter-Service Public Relations. People could not even go to the funerals of their elders because of fear of reprisal from the militants. All this took place under the nose of the state.

But PTM has given new power to people to counter fear. Arif Wazir’s funeral was attended by thousands of Pashtuns. Thousands across Pakistan and internationally protested against his killing. PTM is Pakistan’s powerful junta’s worst nightmare in decades. Intimidation, arrests and killings are only boosting the resolve of the popular movement. Pashtuns have realised their power within and power that comes from connection with their brothers and sisters, as they have recognised that fear and force have limits too.

PTM is a popular movement that relies on the power of the people. Its approach of contention is not only against violence but also without violence. There are hurdles in the way of the movement but its biggest achievement is that it has exposed the abnormality of normal in Pakistan. The death and destruction of Pashtuns and the use of their soil for the ugly business of war will not be accepted as normal anymore. Death and war will be resisted.


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