Behind the curtain of Pakistan’s protests

As this is being written, innumerable Pakistani citizens are marching into Islamabad’s so-called “red zone”, the most heavily guarded and sensitive areas of the capital city.   Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and Canadian religious figure Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri have led tens of thousands to the heart of the capital, alleging vote fraud in the most recent Pakistani election and a failure to enact good-governance reforms.  Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister, has reportedly told police not to fire on them.  At the same time, he shows no sign of stepping down as the head of government.

While the government’s crisis is ongoing, you might already be wondering, “Is this a democratic revolution?”

If we  accept events on a surface level, the protest might indeed “[mean] a National Assembly created by the people for the people.”   But this is Pakistan, where there appears to always be a power-behind-the-power.  If we are jaded by familiar with the long arc of Pakistan’s postcolonial history, we might think we are witnessing a ‘soft coup.’

“But which one is true?”

What really messes with the mind is that both interpretations, as disparate as they sound, are simultaneously possible.  A formally democratic people’s assembly might replace this government, while it may also be true that factions in the military have a hand in attempting to replace a civilian government they don’t like with one the military might feel better about.

“How can a democratic revolution strengthen military rule?”

If this troubles you, consider a parallel to Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution, which democratically replaced a military ruler through a protest movement that showed deep respect towards the country’s military and in the end resulted in a military ruler.

“Okay, so is this a military coup?”

I wouldn’t go that far, and I wouldn’t even say that the only question is whether Pakistan is formally a military state or a civilian state.  Pakistan’s governments have alternated, decade by decade, between being formally ruled by the military and being formally ruled by civilians.  However, there are a number of long term trends that are more linear and stable than whether the country is ‘democratic’ or ‘military dictatorship’:

Since its independence, Pakistan has been the site of various forms of sectarian and other identity-based tensions, including the country splitting in half (East Pakistan became Bangladesh).  It has witnessed a continuously increasing concentration of social, economic, and political power in the hands of the military, regardless of whether that entity is formally calling the shots.  Pakistan has an unhealthy dependence on foreign aid.  And, starting in the 1980s, the country has seen the spread of state-sponsored religious fundamentalism.  Whether or not the government is formally a military dictatorship or formally a civilian democracy, these trends have been there and are arguably more important than the surface-level institutions that are formally governing the state.

“So which is it?  Is this a democratic populist revolution?  Or is it the intrusion of the military into political life?”

It’s too soon to tell; as of now, my best guess is: yes.

Note: This post was edited for clarity and to remove typos.

British Lines, Brown Blood: A short note on Sri Lanka and Gaza

The recent atrocities in Gaza have again refocused world attention on Palestine and the actions of the Israeli state and the Palestinian people.  Israel is engaged in yet another exercise of what is euphemistically called “Mowing the lawn”-  air strikes and military invasion undertaken on a periodic basis to subjugate the people of Gaza and make sure that Israel remains in control, on its own terms.  The most likely outcome, right now, looks like a worsening of the status quo, with Israel tightening the clamps around the throats of the Palestinian people.

At first glance, the people of Palestine and the people of Sri Lanka would appear to have little in common.  In point of fact, though, the two places are more similar than you might think.  Both are descended from British colonies and became independent in the same year, 1948.  Most pertinently, both areas experienced allegedly ‘ancient’ ethnonationalist politics of conflict in which there are calls for partition of the territory.   Both areas have experienced a lengthy military fight over land. 

When so many former British colonies have the same types of conflicts, we have reason to look to the history to examine whether correlation implies causation in this case.   The first key question for comparison is whether ethnicity and land play out differently in former British colonies like India/Pakistan/Bangladesh, Cyprus, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Palestine, and Nigeria.  All of these countries experienced territorial partitions under the logic of ‘communal’ separation.  A tentative hypothesis as to why might look at the ways in which personal economic advancement in the colonial era was tied to the ability to stake a claim on behalf of a ‘community’.   The second is this: does the organizing of politics into militarized ethnic conflict lead to the overshadowing of a pro-people and pro-labor discourse?  In India, for example, the violence of the 1947 partition led many on the left to turn away from the politics of conflict as they witnessed the suffering of the people.  Is this the case in Palestine and Sri Lanka as well?

There are, of course, key differences as well.  The most notable one between Sri Lanka and Palestine is that Sri Lanka’s large-scale military conflict ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.  Proponents of the Palestinian people ought to take a lesson from the end of that war; tens of thousands of civilians died under circumstances that are being investigated by the United Nations. Another major difference, however, would seem to offer hope: the world stood by and barely blinked while Sri Lanka endured human rights violations that continue to today.  In contrast, the world is transfixed by what is happening in Palestine and Israel endures a level of scrutiny that is somewhat unusual among world states.