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The Military and ‘Peripheral’ Violence in Naya Pakistan

June 20, 2013

Guest post by ZEHRA HASHMI

It has been many months now since the Hazaras in Quetta were attacked. They were targeted during the month of January in 2013 and then only 36 days later in February, both times on Alamdar road where most Hazaras live – an area that has been termed an “open air jail”. Both times the banned Sunni organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility. In recent years, as many as 2000 Hazaras have lost their lives to similar acts of targeted violence in Balochistan. As power has been handed over from one civilian government to another for the first time in Pakistan’s history, the systemic nature of this kind of violence should be central to the concerns of Pakistanis – maybe even more than electricity, dare I argue? As Pakistanis think long and hard about what democratic change could mean, I write about the Hazaras now in order to point to the seemingly peripheral minorities as central to Pakistan’s issues. These attacks speak to the complex ways in which violence embeds itself into the everyday lives of some Pakistanis. In other words, the kind of structural issues that trying to wish a ‘naya Pakistan’ into existence will not assuage. There are many elements of the Hazara incident at the beginning of the year that require continual thought and introspection. Even as there was no shortage of discussion and reporting on these attacks there remained a sense, even within the media, that these events would require a more sensitive rendering from the usual crisis reporting that the Pakistani media has come to master. While a lot happens in Pakistan to give one grief, the level of horror around these two incidents made it difficult to articulate ones thoughts and feelings adequately. The affect generated, amongst those who experienced the violence first hand as well as those for whom it was mediated by a screen, was not articulated in terms of arbitrary or blind ‘terror’. Instead the attack provoked a fairly coherent realization that this violence was incredibly directed and purposive.

The world that we inhabit today is necessarily a mediated one. Following from there the local Pakistani media has had a significant part to play in the production of affective responses around these two incidents, both political and otherwise. The sense around these events was not one of chaos and terror, even in the manner they were visualized on screen. This was unlike when a prominent political player is target by a militant outfit for instance. On the part of the Hazara community, there was not only a focused response of anger, channeled with clarity, but also a sense of collective mourning – this distinguished these events from many other ‘terror attacks’. This was largely achieved through the poignancy of the form of protest employed by the Hazara community: they would not bury their dead till their demands for protection were met. It was the first time that the dead protested with the living, as many of us heard and saw on television.

Although we must be critical of the media and their perpetual production of crisis, were they able to do something right in this case? Just by virtue of the fact that both reporters and anchors were able to communicate the specificity of this kind of violence, generate collective mourning and by extension nation wide responsibility – in difference to the usual hysteria and declarations of immanent collapse of both state and society. At the time of the first attack, I remember being somewhat surprised by the manner in which reporters and TV anchors were engaging with members and representatives of the Hazara community. They were mourning alongside the mourners in a manner that compressed distance and unsettled the boundaries between audience and the subjects of the news report, that is, those who were mourning their dead. Watching an anchor on ARY News tear up as she personally condoled with a representative of the Hazara community substantially altered the very tone of the ‘news’.  Of course, my most immediate reaction was aversion towards such sentimentality in journalism. Simultaneously though the question of political function emerged. As persons living in a constantly mediated world, how should we deal with the dissemination of emotions in this manner, where it does the arguably important political work of invoking a shared responsibility over the deceased who lay on Alamdar road for 3 entire days before they were buried.

However one crucial issue remains. The horror of a singular event was privileged over the more difficult process of recognizing a long standing structural violence and underlying discrimination against a minority Shia community and in the case of the Hazaras, doubly marginalized through religious sect and ethnicity. Some would argue that this is implicit or even obvious, but how deep this prejudice runs in Pakistani society is difficult if not impossible to televise within the genre of news.

Perhaps this would all be well and good, accepted as a shortcoming on news media itself, if the media did not play the increasingly significant role that it does in Pakistani political and social life. This event-oriented approach permeates through a media world into the ‘real’ world of political demands. The awareness that one’s protest will be mediated by a heavy handed media lends itself to a particular kind of politics. In this case it has been the politics of demands, and short term demands at that. What emerged was a demand for protection from the state. Unfortunately, in the case of Pakistan that translated into turning to the Pakistani military for the instatement of rule and law. The media gave minute by minute updates on the political negotiations with the civilian government. Multiple reports of the “readiness” of the military were released in tandem.

In a country where the army is arguably one of the most oppressive institutions, how do we come to terms with the fact that one of the major demands emerging from a violent event of this nature was a call for military control over Quetta? Since then information has emerged that the Hazara community was in fact not unanimously behind these demands but that other Shia groups articulated this demand of an army take over of Quetta. The Hazara Democractic Party expressed opposition and in a press statement in February after the second attack condemned other Shia representative organizations for ‘playing politics over the dead bodies of Hazara youth’.

The call for military rule in Quetta (by some representatives, a contested call at best) was particularly disturbing since the Pakistani military has had clear connections with Lashkar –e-Taiba; not only were they a puppet organization of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency but the attacks in Quetta have been clearly identified as “intelligence failures”. There is talk in the media of the ‘terror’ attack as not incompetence on the part of the state but clearly unwillingness. Despite the imposition of Governor’s rule – which entailed the suspension of parliamentary bodies and any political governance over Balochistan – the second attack could not be prevented. At the time of the second attack there were demands for army rule voiced within the Hazara community in Quetta. This would effectively place a state of emergency over Balochistan, installing curfews and suspending basic rights. The protective institution is the very same military that has been harbouring if not actively nurturing orthodox Sunni outfits in question such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

However, even the call for military rule by a Shia organization that does not represent the Hazara raises difficult issues, keeping in mind that the Lashkar’s logic in targeting Hazaras is sectarian not ethnic (self-proclaimed). Is this then simply another “ground reality”, as many a Pakistani army man would call such a situation? This articulation of demands results in the circular nature of political grievance in Pakistan: the military is the solution because it is the problem. Here, the citizen has not unambiguously rejected the military state which is what some progressives would hope. Instead she has decided to instrumentally deploy it in her own interests. The Hazaras might be aware that calling on the military will not necessarily entail its unfettered entrance into their lives. They also know that the state rides on spectacle and performance, and its power is choppy. The state will respond to pressure mounted by their protests, and they can leverage the civilian government by playing the military card. Ultimately, the call for the military, whether fraught with internal tensions or not, illustrates a paradox. Even as the state is at fault, it is also called upon and held accountable.

In this vein, one could propose that if we understand the hegemony of the military state apparatus in Pakistan – that continues to exist despite a shiny new democratic government – we can then chip away at its power via a strategy of claims and demands. The ultimate question remains: what will these demands be? It is important that Pakistanis not view themselves as a homogenous Muslim nation, for the simple reason that they are not. Pointing to differences in Pakistan is often times bemoaned as divisive by a certain brand of patriot. This does not necessarily mean weakening the nation through fracturing. It could also mean reconfiguring the very idea of Pakistan. Its supposed peripheries – people or places – must be seen as linked to its core at critical junctures, spatial or temporal. These peripheries – be they in Waziristan, Alamdar road or at that other end of Margalla Road in Islamabad that few readers of this piece have most likely ventured into – can be important windows into the reconstruction of a Pakistani ‘self’. Perhaps it is de centering the assumed identity of this self that is an important first step in this process.

Zehra Hashmi studied Anthropology and History at Columbia University. She is interested in electronic news media and spatial politics in urban Pakistan.

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