Inequality and ideology – Umair Javed


THE state’s decision to ban the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), following a wave of riotous mobilisation and significant violence against police officials, is not without merit. There are, of course, broader questions of state overreach, but this particular step is a reverberation of history on that front rather than a new note altogether.

The questions worth asking today are those that emerge from the ‘how-did-this-happen’ and ‘what next’ genres. Among these two, the former may provide clues for the latter.

For too long, mainstream progressive analysis of the religious right has reduced it to an instrument of political manipulation in the hands of the establishment. As with most received wisdoms, there is obviously more than a kernel of truth to it. Yet the state is not blessed with infinite autonomy. To ascribe it with this much agency is a way of inadvertently deifying it and simultaneously constraining possibilities of societal-led change.

State-centred analysis of the TLP should therefore be supplemented by tracing the entity’s origins and continued existence among the complexities of society.

One such line of analysis makes the role of inequality and poverty a pertinent one. Visuals and reportage from TLP gatherings, protests, rallies, and riots lend further credence to this perspective, which can be crassly summarised as ‘the lumpen masses enraged’. The slightly longer version of this argument sees the late Khadim Rizvi’s charismatic authority striking a chord with poor people around the country, translating their poverty-induced anxieties into electoral support and seasonally assertive rage.

Hunger and want, and the constant reminder of inequality, may condition religious mobilisation, but they are not solely sufficient.

It is worth engaging with this particular proposition, given how intuitive and common-sensical it appears; but it is also worth bringing in some critiques to make it more nuanced.

One critique proffers that Pakistan is a poor country and any reasonably large political/social phenomenon would carry significant involvement of poor people. Just by force of demography, that doesn’t mean the movement itself is of poor people. There may be some quantitative truth to this proposition; TLP clearly speaks to a section of the poor, not all of it. At the same time though, an outright dismissal ignores the proportionality of public support that TLP draws from subaltern groups. Exit poll data, while imprecise, suggests that the median TLP voter is poorer than the median voter for other mainstream parties, while a higher share of TLP in urban and peri-urban constituencies points to an inequality and rural-to-urban migration story.

Others water down the class angle by suggesting that while the rank-and-file remain poor, vocal ideological leadership and material support comes from the middling sorts — mostly traders and businessmen of various stripes. In other words, the poor are simply living out the religio-cultural fantasies and bigoted chauvinism of the better off. The point about ideological sustenance and leadership is important, and worth considering, but the denial of agency to the ‘hapless’ masses is flawed. People participate in political events and gatherings for a host of reasons, many, if not all, of which are products of their own cognition and consciousness, however those may be shaped.

What these critiques leave us with is a way of making the relationship between poverty, inequality, and religious assertiveness a little more complex. As the late great social historian, E.P. Thompson, suggested in his study of riots in the 18th century, we need to avoid rendering an infinitely complex social creature to a spasmodic figure who responds to “elementary economic stimuli”. In other words, hunger and want, and the constant reminder of inequality, may condition religious mobilisation, but they are not solely sufficient.

Six years ago, while doing research in a large wholesale marketplace in Lahore, I caught a glimpse of the refractions that make something like the TLP possible. As public spaces, bazaars act as sites where not just goods but also ideas are exchanged and practised, as well as where inequality is produced and replicated. The bulk of a market’s population consists of informally employed, perennially exploited shop workers, helpers, hawkers and vendors. Many are young, recent entrants to the city from rural areas, or what government labour data would coldly classify as ‘unskilled migrants’. They live and work in adverse conditions, with non-existent protections, and the contingent generosity of patrons and employers as their only material insurance.

And it is in this backdrop that religious organisations have carved out significant space for themselves. In recent years, the Barelvi revival has led to the numbers of such affiliate organisations mushroom; these organisations then frequently take on the task of organising public events (bayaans and mehfil-i-milaads, for example) and localised acts of philanthropy. For the urban poor, it’s not just about free food and the occasional handout, as crass theories of patronage would have us believe. These events help propagate ideas and develop cultural understandings of the world in very localised idiom, often by linking material inequities to moral failures and global machinations. In contrast, the political and cultural mainstream has no response or theory for either of these concerns.

But beyond conduits of ideology, these events also act as viable public entertainment and an integral source of social bonding. Assisting local religious figures in organising them — in simple tasks of laying out the daris, helping distribute food, collecting alms from local residents — helps build fraternal ties among the unrooted and gives cultural purpose and a sense of dignity in a deprived landscape with few alternative sources for either. That reservoir of social solidarity then reproduces itself in public form, including through collective acts of violence.

This exact story may only be true for a section of TLP voters and rioters, but the underlying process in which inequality is refracted through ideology and cultural experience lies at the heart of what we’re seeing. And once we develop visibility of this, it becomes clear that it’s a complex phenomenon that cannot be addressed simply by addressing material inequity, and most certainly not just through an organisational ban.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2021