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Structural violence in Pakistan

Publication Date : 30-05-2014


From gruesome gang rapes to targeted killings of Ahmadis, violent hate crimes co­n­tinue to cast their shadow over the body politic. Some would argue that there has be­en a distinct upsurge in such incidents, suggesting that Pakistan is progressively becoming a more violent society. This may be so, but my sense is that, more than anything else, increased media coverage is bringing more and more incidents of violence to light.

Perhaps understandably, we are typically overwhelmed by gruesome acts of violence that come into the public eye, and react to them accordingly. In fact, for every such incident there are more that we hear nothing about, taking place within the confines of homes, or in less direct ways in everyday settings.

In India there was mass public outcry some months ago following the gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi. Because of the relatively robust culture of democratic discussion in India, that and other similar incidents sparked off a series of debates that should have some far-reaching policy impacts.

Even in such a context, however, structures of patriarchy, caste and religious oppr­ession remain resolute. It is folly to assume that progressive legislative initiatives here and there can make a serious dent. For that matter, in Europe and other so-called developed countries, there’s a long way to go before racism and other forms of discrimination can be definitively confined to the past.

Arguably the difference between such societies and ours is that here we focus only on spectacular incidents of violence, rarely talking about everyday instances of structural violence which are perhaps less acute but no less significant. This, as I suggested in reference to the Indian example, is explained by the weakness of democratic institutions and the attendant superficiality of public debate.

The religious establishment is probably the single biggest force sustaining status quo inasmuch as it actively prevents debate on major social ills by issuing what are effectively unchallengeable religious edicts. The clerics enjoy a monopoly on interpretation of religion and anyone who ventures from what is considered proper religious conduct is subject to the most serious punishment by vigilantes who enjoy the sanction of the religious establishment.

Yet the religious right is part of a bigger problem. Structures of patriarchy, caste oppression and religious persecution that the religious right defends are also sustained by other forces, and in conjunction with other structures. Can it be taken for granted, for instance, that domestic abuse does not take place in households calling themselves ‘liberal’? Do all who consider themselves enlightened defy boundaries of biradari and caste in matters of marriage and property?

From colonial times, the composition of the elite has transcended simplistic categories such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. For instance, it was the progeny of landed families that attended Aitcheson and Burn Hall and went on to become Macaulay’s renown­ed brown sahibs. Yes, the nouveau-riche conservatives that have become a political, economic and cultural force over the past few decades are qualitatively different from the more established elite, but it should not be forgotten that it was the avowedly ‘secular’ successors of the British that brought the millenarian monster to life and continue to rent the country out to the Saudis and Qataris to continue perpetuating their grand project.

The general liberal rancour vis-à-vis intolerance and bigotry — and the attendant and reactive culture of protest — is therefore neither here nor there. First, simply decrying the overwhelming power of rightist vigilantes that perpetuate violence against women, the religious ‘other’ and other vulnerable social groups does not help cut the right down to size. Second, and more importantly, the ranting actually obfuscates the significant complicity of many segments of the liberal elite in perpetuating and giving new form to oppressive structures.

Perhaps the elite’s liberal segments do not perceive themselves to be part of the problem, but then structural violence is insidious precisely because it conceals the complex interrelationships that reproduce oppression on a daily basis. I am inclined not to be so forgiving towards the liberal elite, because in many cases it consciously sustains its class privileges even while claiming to be the vanguard of movements against other forms of oppression.

If outrageous contradictions of this nature can be addressed, we can still hold out the prospect of an alliance of progressives — liberals, leftists and ethno-nationalists. But this requires a minimum common agenda and refuting what I once called the ‘headless chicken’ approach to activism, namely reacting to any and every rights violation that comes into the public eye. For each fire that we try and fight, many more will keep breaking out.


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