RECENT events like the toppling of colonial statues in America and Europe, the reverting of Hagia Sophia museum to a mosque in Turkey, and the destruction of a Buddha statue in Pakistan, have triggered conversations around historical moralities. Some fear these acts will erase history while others argue that such corrective activism is worthwhile. But who are the beneficiaries of such actions and what will replace the vacated or reclaimed landscapes?
It is not just capitalist land developers who compete for control over audio and visual landscapes of cities; power brokers, like Erdogan and Modi, also use these to fortify governmentality. Every so often, new statues of Stalin are re-erected by supporters of communism while the alt-right topples them, belying the allegation that only conservatives want to preserve authoritarian legacies.
Statues do not prevent social change just as their removal does not guarantee it. In South Asia, there is no nostalgia for colonisers and, while Pakistanis have strong opinions on colonial statues, there is little critical discussion or consensus over the vandalising of the Ranjit Singh statue or erecting one depicting Ertugrul in Lahore.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ordered that a cinema hall in Karachi be reverted to the original but defunct, Islamic centre. Such contestations prevail not only due to the unresolved place of faith and national identities but also bibliophobia and cinephobia in postcolonial Pakistan.
Teaching selective histories via nostalgic glory rather than critical reckoning is a moral deficit that previous empires and postcolonial states are guilty of, and it benefits religio-nationalism rather than people. This motivated Punjab’s puritanical drive to protect the foundations of faith and nation by discarding ‘offensive’ books. The same tendency can be seen in the orthopraxis destruction of the Buddha in Mardan and in conservatives’ resistance to erecting a Hindu temple in Islamabad. These continue in the backdrop of desecration of Ahmadi, Hindu and Christian graves to achieve an imagined moral purity.
Chauvinistic policies are not exclusively Gen Zia’s legacies or obsolete games of the state — many are the result of sheer cowardice or opportunism by all civilian political parties and their leaders. These policies enjoy state impunity but also reflect broad majoritarian consensus.
It was not the state but the All Pakistan Private School Federation that took religio-nationalist offence and banned Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography. Similarly, the moral injury claimed by the Pakistani ulema who demanded a ban on the film Zindagi Tamasha Hai echoed Muslim protests in the West against perceived pejorative depictions of Muslim cultures. We value religious sensitivity in white majority contexts but insist that Pakistanis cannot feel genuinely offended too.
If statues and pro-colonial histories can be offensive, then so can anti-national ones. Punjab’s decision to purge some texts as a moral necessity is the logical endgame to ‘moral’ objections against any offensive views. Conscientious objectors who are persuaded that ‘the moment’ has come when perspectives that have ‘historically and empirically been proven to be outrageous’ should ‘not be debated any longer’, cannot then preach selectivity over the removal of material or authors because they foreclose disputation itself.
The notion that the moral balance sheet of any historical event is conclusively accounted for is refuted by lack of any authoritative postcolonial theory produced in Pakistan (Hamza Alavi’s and Eqbal Ahmed’s works were produced overseas) and the fact that legal legacies of the colonial period remain contested.
Many Pakistanis conveniently connect all racism to colonialism but remain silent on Pakistani racism against Bangladeshis or Arab racism against Pakistanis.
Disputes on evacuee trust properties; debates on Muslim women’s autonomy; critical appraisals of wars lost; contestation over languages, Pakistan and religious studies; all remain matters where offence and injury are interlaced with faith and nationalism. Without an alternative persuasion that is resistant to this, simple outrage will echo aimlessly in a wasteland.
For a radical reshaping of the intellectual landscape, thinkers and the state must progress beyond symbolic nods to decolonisation or facile online ‘critiques’. It is imperative to determine a set of stable postcolonial principles of freedoms that are critical of all colonial and neo-colonial empires (including China), and more crucially, which oppose religio-nationalist majoritarianism.
Where are these postcolonial consensual principles? Why do we blame the state’s censorious policies and curriculum content when progressive thinkers themselves do not agree on which alternative inclusive philosophies, texts, monuments, or teachings should replace the voided landscape?