Elites on the streets

Fayes T Kantawala got waylaid in Lahore by someone's security detail

Elites on the streets
I was driving home the other day when I stopped at a traffic light at a large intersection on the Mall. Some moments later a large pickup truck screeched to a halt in front of my car. A pack of men dressed in elite-force uniforms and toting large semi-automatic guns jumped down and spread out to block the various standing traffic lines. The hapless traffic policeman, dressed in his benign factory-worker uniform (a conciliatory powder-blue, if you please), stood leaning against a tree in a pose that said “Whatever, I’m totes used to this.”

I assumed that there must have been some VIP coming through or the PM or maybe even the President (the Boo Radley of Pakistan’s political neighborhood). It turned out they had cordoned off one of the city’s busiest intersections because a girl being driven in a shiny car wanted to get out of a coffee house and couldn’t be bothered to go down the road to take the U turn.
I really believe there should be an art exhibition on the iconography of Pakistani elections

Ordinarily this moment would inspire me to imagine stealing one of the assault rifles and briefly use the girl’s giant sunglasses as target practice, walking out into the middle of the street to the cheers of fellow drivers like a modern Russell Crowe in Gladiator. But I’ve been meditating recently and that isn’t the most Buddhist thing to imagine so instead I took deep calming breaths and looked around the street. Giant election posters were hanging off the trees with slogans and pictures of the candidates fighting in the Battle of the Week, NA-122. I really believe there should be an art exhibition on the iconography of Pakistani elections. So much of it looks like medieval icons with large pictures of saints and prophets flanked by smaller portraits of those who paid for the image. But I digress.

Truthfully, I had no idea there was an election. This momentous non-occasion is apparently the result of Imran Khan and his party camping out on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad for half a year. One is liable to have felt a little sorry for them when they had lost (again) but that sympathy was short-lived,because the moment the results were announced they promised to go to the election committee to demand recounts and lodge complaints. This is not surprising. Indeed, very little is.

Consider: when I turned on my Facebook the other day for my morning dose of self-hatred and outrage, I found lots of pictures of MumtazQadri, the erstwhile “elite guard” (there’s a title for a blistering novella) who gunned down Governor Taseer, looking smug as he was led out of court. The newspapers were reporting the honorable judge’s amazing verdict: criticizing the blasphemy law is not the same thing as committing blasphemy and, therefore, his death sentence is to be upheld. I realize that this is a step in the “right direction” and I am happy that the Supreme Court had the wits to publicly acknowledge this. But the news made me feel, in a real way, very sad. Sad because it reminded me how very, very far we have gone in the wrong direction, so that even steps like this one appear to be progress. The man gunned down a sitting governor in broad daylight, and not one of his fellow guards tried to stop him. To frame this debate, if one can even call it that, as a deep insight into the slimmer and slimmer justification of what constitutes blasphemy is beyond facile, it’s downright shameful. It took us four years – four years! – to publicly acknowledge that what Qadri did was not justified and it seems that that has less to do with court timings than it does with fear. Lest youliberatis (fun new word for incorrigible Pakistani liberals) twist yourselves into knots of righteous outrage, I’m talking here about the fact that what Qadri did was a crime, not whether or not the death penalty is a good or bad thing.

An NA-122 polling station
An NA-122 polling station

It also made me very scared, because if institutions like the judiciary are afraid of handing out sentences in these cases then that doesn’t bode well for individuals. The longer I hear the din and noise of democracy in this country the more it occurs to me that, fabulous as the idea is, the fight for its existence can become a major tool of distraction. Distraction in the sense that we keep pointing to that fact that we are now “Democratic” as testament to our progress, while not really making much of it in terms of our public safety, religious freedom or civic development. I have not forgotten that the reason Imran Khan finally stopped his long protest in Islamabad was not because he achieved a goal, but rather because the Peshawar massacre took place and the optics of him standing on a container talking about elections while his province buried small children became untenable.

Smarter people than I tell me that this is how it works: small, staggering steps that eventually turn into a strong, confident stride and that is how you strengthen democracy. Keep fighting the small battles and eventually one day you’ll find that you’re strong enough to fight the larger ones, like terrorism and religious freedom. Perhaps these smart people are right. Perhaps the election in NA-122 and Qadri’s sentence are indeed small proofs that we are moving in some kind of steadily discernable direction. Justice can be upheld. Elections can be held. Maybe we – and I mean everyone my age, but especially everyone my age who also matches my socio-economic profile – are basically impatient children in the backseat of the car screaming “Are we there yet?”

One thing’s for sure: we can’t see the road ahead when it’s blocked by elite guards.

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