A Riot Gone Wrong: Imran Khan And The Pakistani Middle-Class Conundrum

A Riot Gone Wrong: Imran Khan And The Pakistani Middle-Class Conundrum
Those belonging to an economic class can immediately empathise with another from the same class. Ideology often goes out the window. When members of the more cosmopolitan strand of Pakistan’s middle-class saw a clip of a woman supporter of Imran Khan being taken away by the police during the recent riots in Lahore, they immediately saw her as being from their own social and economic clan. She looked the part. And even those from her class who weren’t all that crazy about Khan began to applaud her on Twitter.

Some years ago, someone uploaded a clip of a woman (from the working-class) on Twitter. In the video, she was being pushed around by the police. There was no applause as such on social media, just the token condemnation. The only ones truly outraging were people (mostly women) from her own class. Therefore, the video clip did not go ‘viral’ because there are hardly any Pakistani working-class women on Twitter.

Nevertheless, applauding those who are involved in acts of arson, looting and spouting violent rhetoric seems to be okay to the upper-middle-and-middle-classes of the country: if it is coming from members of their own class. But not so okay when the same is being delivered by members of the lower-middle- and working-classes. The riots in Lahore two years ago by the Islamist party the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are a case in point.
It was fascinating. After Khan’s dramatic arrest, they felt being under attack. Rather, the feeling was of their class being under attack. So, they began to look for ‘heroes’ where were none, and ‘bravery’ amidst burning buildings, cars, buses, etc.

During the recent riots by Khan’s supporters, when people set fire to numerous state, government and public installations to protest against the arrest of their leader, I looked at the tweets of seven people, none of who were overt fans of Imran Khan. But they just couldn’t stop outraging about the aforementioned woman and/or applaud her ‘bravery.’ By the look of it, the Twitter handles belonged to urban middle-class folk.

I then searched their Tweets posted during the TLP riots in 2021. In their tweets of that period, four of the seven were very angry by the riotous ‘anti-state’ actions of the jahil (illiterates). They were jahil because they belonged to classes below the middle. There was applause here as well, but only for images of the jahil being mercilessly beaten by the cops. There was also great concern demonstrated by the four about the destruction of ‘beautiful Lahore.’ But there was no such concern exhibited by them when the supposedly non-jahil men and women went on a rampage during the recent commotion in the same ‘beautiful Lahore.’

This phenomenon seems to be present more in the main urban areas of central Punjab and in Sindh’s capital, Karachi. This is because cities such as Karachi and Lahore hold the largest number of the cosmopolitan segment that I am discussing here. Khan’s arrest did not only trigger rage in his usual, loud collective of urban followers, but strangely, those from this class who are not very vocal about their support for him, too, found themselves caught in the emotional tide raised by their fellow class members. They felt fear running through them, followed by outrage which was eventually ‘balanced’ by the usual tick-all-the-right-boxes-approach.

It was fascinating. After Khan’s dramatic arrest, they felt being under attack. Rather, the feeling was of their class being under attack. So, they began to look for ‘heroes’ where were none, and ‘bravery’ amidst burning buildings, cars, buses, etc. The mob suddenly became a legitimate expression of democracy.

Unlike the lynching mobs that go mad at the faintest smell of ‘blasphemy,’ this mob, rampaging its way across Lahore, began to be romanticised. Nothing new. This phenomenon has its roots in the 1977 movement against the ZA Bhutto regime. As demonstrated by the late political scientist KB Sayeed in his 1980 book The Nature and Direction of Change, the 1977 movement that had wrecked Karachi and Lahore was largely participated in by middle-income groups and facilitated by the industrialists.

It was even applauded by the so-called ‘leftists’ with middle-class backgrounds. To them, the mob became an expression of ‘revolutionary action,’ until, of course, a reactionary dictator stepped in and was hailed as a saviour by the mob. A majority of these middle-class leftists remained ‘underground’ during the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship. Here ‘underground’ largely meant their bedrooms. It was men and women from the working-classes and lower-middle-classes who faced long jail sentences, torture, public floggings and even executions.

The 2007 ‘Lawyers Movement,’ too, was a middle-class uprising, with a controversial populist judge as its hero. The question was, who was better: him, or a dictator (Musharraf) who had chucked him out? The point here is that the middle-classes of Pakistan – both on the right and the so-called left – have this curious knack of hailing one demagogue over another. Indeed, the judge wasn’t a politician, but when he was restored as Chief Justice of Pakistan, he began the rotten tradition of interfering in parliamentary affairs and those of governance. That is something that has carried on till this day.

The more ‘liberal’ and ‘leftist’ folk who had carried him back simply provided token condemnation when the populist judges who followed this one, tag-teamed with the military establishment, to wreck the flow of two elected governments from 2008 till 2018. There were no heroes found, and no acts of ‘bravery’ romanticised during these episodes. How could there be? There were no mobs.

The Pakistani middle-classes, like their Indian contemporaries, have developed a mob psyche. This psyche is the result of frustration. This class feels that despite gaining economic influence, it has failed to acquire any significant political influence.

Yet, every time it it has tried to gain political significance, it has offered reactionary alternatives. Not only does it think that these alternatives alone can hand them political power in a supposedly ‘conservative society’ such as Pakistan, but one can also safely claim that the alternatives are actually manifestations of the beliefs and economic interests of this class. So, being on the left, the right, or in the centre does not matter. This class is inherently reactionary from all sides.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.