2019 — the year of the street – Shahzad Chaudhry


Only a few bits saved Pakistan from making 2019 its “annus horribilis”. The spark of the promise led by the youth of South Asia was first lit in Pakistan by a till-then little-known Arooj Aurangzeb of Lahore and her compatriots, who recalled some revolutionary songs of the yore to give life to the idea of the left. Most observers were astonished because it likened to raising the dead from the ashes, the ambers long having gone cold. But it was refreshing and a young group of activists in some corner of the society were idealist enough to find the words for it.

The idea of the left was catchy and full of heady idealism, the stuff dreams are made of. Some actually went through with giving meaning at the state level to it with various forms of socialism, including Pakistan, where ZAB was the primary exponent of such a revolutionary socioeconomic experiment. But it was all soon swept under the realism of a capitalist order which had entrenched like none other. So to hear Arooj and Co. express in their innocence, the yearning for what had long died, was exhilarating. It betrayed some naiveté but brought to fore that the young could still exuberate energy in the face of the conventional and challenge the status quo. It made quite a stir.

The state woke up from its slumber and acted wisely to mainstream these souls into a more routine process of dulling them into normalcy. Habib Jalib and Faiz, both were then taken over by the youth of India taking the lead from neighbouring Pakistan and took it on from there. Much more in number with live issues that plague India in the face of an oppressive idea of the Hindutva overwhelmingly imposed by the state they used the revolutionary poetry to galvanise resistance in the length and breadth of India. Who says a commonly understood language bequeaths little benefit? The Citizens Amendment Act (CAA) opposes the very idea of what India always stood for while the reaction to it has become the most extraordinary street movement in the world against a forced reformation of a society. Hindutva signifies a pogrom and a cult where those who don’t succumb or obey are excised. Ethnic submission or cleansing, as you please, in crass terms.

What may become of it is not known. If earlier it were the Kashmiris that were giving blood to a movement for their independence, they now had compatriots in India coming together to stand up to an extremist agenda of another kind that uses ultra-right Hindu-based exclusivism to define nationalism — the anti-thesis of a liberal, secular, inclusive society. The young are in the lead to fight the morbidity of Modi’s India.

This was the scene in every corner of the world, from Chile, Venezuela and Ecuador to Hong Kong, Beirut, Baghdad and Sudan. The Iranians too joined in; all reacting to how they felt they had been dispossessed of their rights as people and citizens of the state. In most places the states caved in before them. The power of the people is such. Iran may seem a bit quieter now; but for how long? When a system fails to deliver and keeps that way without there being an effort to make it functional and responsive, the people will react. They are the second party to the contract with the state which is entrusted to their nominal representatives to execute. When either the state or their representatives go rogue the people will coalesce to regain their place. When that happens nothing stands in the way. That is the crux. Those that understand the flimsy basis of their temporary control while in government will forget this basic construct of a state and its ownership at their peril. And should thus never be indifferent to the street.

As December goes by it is only this week that we celebrate the man who found Muslims of South Asia a state. Pakistan seems to have either gone into a slumber or off its intended track though there are sparse redemptions across an otherwise barren landscape. A few more jolts of foundational failure or a disregard of that other party, the people — the owners of the contract — and you may have the street up here too in short order. And then nothing will sustain. No amount of forced imposition of an order will withstand the popular sentiment. The people are already fraying at the edges in their tolerance and sustaining capabilities. They cannot be tested more. Life has become a burden for an ordinary soul; and this needs to be understood. What crosses the frontiers one-way can also cross the other way. Little Arooj showed us that, even in her innocence and naiveté.

This brings us closer to home. The clouds of conflict and war with India hang over us as December parts as much as it was a threat which turned real with Pulwama and Balakot in the beginning of 2019. We haven’t been able to change this equation. Pakistan was able to redeem its honour in the short aerial skirmish of February 27. As we gloat over that success we must not be oblivious to what a longer, sustained war can wreak. For the moment the wisdom of some has kept us out of one but when desperation for any of the multifarious internal or external failures are deliberately channeled into silliness on the borders, the miscalculation is loaded with untold misery, devastation and death. That is an unfortunate consequence for the incompetence of some at home. The people will soon react to even that if not rectified, both in India and Pakistan.

The economy has tanked and fallen into IMF’s care. Millions are being reduced to poverty as the economy shrinks and governments continue to rattle out misplaced numbers largely irrelevant to a common man. More than squaring deficits he hopes to be able to put food on the table for his children. Daily life is a chore. Every man in Pakistan is today poorer than what he was a few years back. The society is on a brink of a break-up and there exists no order to keep them aligned. The parliament is dormant and the government non-functional, but no one gives a fig. This is a government on lease. How short — is what people are trying to guess.

If earlier there was the threat of a martial law, now judicial excess and over-reach is the new arbiter. Politics is personal or tribal, and thus self-serving. The common man has no place in this scheme of things. What leaders shout to the hordes before them is lies and meaningless sloganeering. The common man remains woefully neglected. 2020 may well be his year if the system doesn’t mend itself. Heed, thy wielders of sham power. The street will pave the way for it.

Happy New Year!

Published in The Express Tribune, December 29th, 2019.