Cynicism is the opium of the elite. This is the main thing that I would like to say to Mr. Nadeem Farooq Paracha, in response to his article called "Air Bag" that was published in DAWN magazine on November 18th.
NFP argues that the ongoing civil society protests against the emergency reek of "hypocrisy" and "pretension", and that he does not want to be part of a "crusade" in which the lawyers, democrats, extremists, and liberals are hurled together in the same boat. If aunties protest, they are too elitist and it is convenient for them to rally "on a full stomach." If students protest, they are misguided. I want to ask NFP: who would you rather have, your highness? Perfect socialists who grow their own food? Or laborers on an empty stomach? A while back, mullahs all over the country were protesting against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Does that mean that I should not have protested against the war?
NFP apparently wants a perfect civil society, but does not want to do anything constructive towards its creation. He seems to think that his resistance to Zia's regime was the only valid cause to uphold, because he was involved in it. Wake up, Mr. NFP, please shake yourself out of your bubble. We are living through a more insidious Zia these days, which makes the challenge much more critical and daunting. Politics – like life – is messy, confusing, and full of contradictions. "Civil society" anywhere is ridden with ironies, exclusions, and axes of difference such as class and ethnicity, and these need to be negotiated for bringing about progressive change, not escaped through use of self-aggrandizing wit and cynicism.
It is too easy to believe in economic and social justice, and then sit back and comment on how no one is getting it right. And when in times of brutal repression, people finally find the need and courage to stand up, the threatened arm-chair cynics like NFP love to run them down even more: why did they not stand up for a,b,c cause before? Only if they stand up against x,y,z now, will I – the self-proclaimed sage of the age – deem their cause worthy enough.
One can criticize any stance – which, by the way, is only a convenient way for not taking any stance at all. It is always convenient to be cynical and contradictory, as if that makes us all intellectual. This is the surest way to escape ever standing up for anything, and for masking one's own ignorance, and unwillingness to engage. It is simply an excuse to stay in our elite comfort zones. But silence is a form of political action, and it has strong consequences especially in these severe times. By not standing up and vocalizing our discontent with this kind of exceptional repression, we are implicitly telling the regime – and all subsequent regimes – that it is ok for them to do whatever they please, and we will sit idle like innocent bystanders. Our fatalistic ("whatever will be will be"), over-critical ("I don't agree with anything"), and cynical ("this is such a crazy farce") postures are not only unfair to those who are willing to struggle and sacrifice, but they in effect help to sustain the status quo.
I am obviously not against humor, wit, or critique. We would not get anywhere without these. Indeed, there are many shortcomings of the current resistance that I have experienced myself. Amongst other things, it is not broad-based enough and will perhaps flounder in the absence of a viable leadership. The situation, though, demands more minds and more engagement, not an offensive use of witty cynicism.
The "decked up supermarket aunty" who NFP so condescendingly rebukes might be shopping at Agha's, but at least she has the decency to stand up for the cause of democracy and justice. With the kind of elite apathy, non-seriousness, and fear that I see around me, even one elite woman taking part in a flash protest is refreshing, and makes a difference. The daughter of Murtaza Bhutto – who to NFP's displeasure is also part of the anti-emergency struggle – published a moving and timely article on the tremendous suffering of missing peoples' families in Baluchistan, on the same day as NFP was putting down the protestors who are trying to protect the rights of these families to due process of law. NFP loves to mock Imran Khan as well -- will he recognize that the latter accomplished almost revolutionary change in the culture of Punjab University by enabling students to challenge IJT oppression? Salman Ahmad is NFP's favorite target, yet the rock singer wrote a more real and insightful article for the Washington Post in which he took a clear stance against martial law.
It's all too easy to disparage protesting students as well by saying that they are immature, trying to act cool and pseudo-revolutionary, or just joining the bandwagon. Why are we so bent on dismissing them instead of giving them credit? They are not impulsive fools who love Benazir or Nawaz Sharif – they are as disillusioned with "democratic" regimes as anyone else. Does this mean that they should now give up all hope and respect for political process? Do we simply accept the kingdom of a military dictator? The students are genuinely frustrated, and refuse to watch tyranny take root. They are a heterogeneous bunch, do not have all the answers, and are also uncertain about what the future will bring – as in any struggle. Yet, not standing up to current atrocities is a graver concern for them. Despite enormous fears in these times of repression, they have the integrity and courage to take a stance.
This is the time to make distinctions. We need to recognize that the current struggle is about resisting the wholesale annihilation of the rule of law, and the freedom of expression. I, too, cannot stand talk shows on certain channels, and in fact, loved NFP's spoof on them that was published recently. Does that mean that a high-handed closure of channels and silencing of critique under PEMRA is acceptable? The Supreme Court might be corrupt, brash, and naïve, but it showed an unprecedented sense of social and political responsibility by taking up cases against forced disappearances, shady privatizations, and illegal building practices. Unlike the shameless legislature, executive, and most of the citizenry, the lawyers and judges who have been hounded for months are still bravely refusing to accept an elitist and military-dominated status quo. What power are they getting by risking their lives and the security of their families? Why, for once, can we not think about their struggle with the seriousness that it demands? What amount of violence and human rights abuse will it take to move us into action? Is the decimation of the highest judicial institution not enough? Are over 5,000 indiscriminate and unlawful arrests not enough? What about the anti-terrorism and sedition cases against innocent people? Are the laws for court-marshalling citizens also acceptable, so that the military-intelligence establishment can simply press "delete" on citizens like it did on the Supreme Court?
Democracy is something you achieve through citizens' engagement, not through self-serving apathy and through blaming the judiciary, politicians, and just about every one else. Indeed, as a friend recently said to me, "those who have spent their lives struggling for freedom and democracy and have seen their efforts go to waste time and time again are actually the least likely to develop this perverse form of cynicism." If we do not have the courage to protest the ever-increasing despotism that is shredding our country, at least we should not trivialize and ridicule the efforts of those who do. Better still, we should express our solidarity, lend support, and actively shape this defining historic moment.
I request NFP to shed his holier-than-thou, "I'm too well-informed to take a stance" posture because that is what really reeks of elitism, hypocrisy, and pretension