Hegemony in Punjab | Invisible Cities

Jan 2015
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Invisible Cities | BLOG

Business in Charrar Pind | Photography: B&T ka safr

Business in Charrar Pind | Photography: B&T ka safr

Roughly two years ago, I visited Charar pind as part of a project researching service delivery in low-income neighbourhoods. For those unfamiliar with the locality, Charar is a densely populated urban village, built on old homestead land located smack in the centre of Lahore’s most affluent township – the Defence Housing Authority (DHA). Surrounded by large, well-manicured ‘kothis’ (bungalows) on all four sides, the 150 acre neighbourhood is home to around 2,000 families (in comparison, the same area in any of DHA’s ‘sectors’ hosts anywhere between 120 to 150 families.)

I entered half-expecting the pronounced spatial-economic disruption to manifest itself in the shape of a conscious, class-based cleavage; a circumscribed example of the ‘poor inner city’ versus ‘rich suburb/county’ fracture that we see in the U.S., or in other parts of the developed world. The truth was far more complicated, as it usually is. After dozens of interviews, spread over a period of 2 weeks, it became clear the residents of Charar cautiously looked at DHA – the affluent neighbour that took their agricultural land, attempted to cut off one of their only two major road links and repeatedly refused access to its water and natural gas-supply – as a benefactor of sorts, rather than the antagonist.

A benefactor, I was told, that built this ‘strong boundary wall for us’ (in reality designed to ‘keep the riff-raff out’), gives out free food during Ramazan, and one that provides the men and women of Charar employment as underpaid, overworked household help.

This absence of overt, or organized difference is visible in the electoral realm as well. Barring this last election (where cosmetic differences between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the PML-N and PTI, created a pseudo-divergence), voting patterns in both Charar and DHA have been roughly the same for the last 20 years. They have all voted for the same candidates, supported the same right-wing parties, in roughly the same proportions. Door-to-door campaigning may occasionally address different issues, but it remains quite telling that the ultra-rich, and the mostly-poor, both see the same pro-business party (and the same wealthy candidate) as their true representative.

The Charar-DHA relationship is a microcosm of the kind of class hegemony one finds firmly entrenched in urban Punjab. The roots of this non-confrontational, vertically-organized political compact – one which Aasim Sajjad Akhtar calls the ‘politics of common sense’ – are traceable to several things: the state-led suppression of the working class movement in the 70s and 80s, structural changes in Pakistan’s economy, which led to the stagnation of manufacturing and the rise of an informal, fragmented services sector, and, the repeated normalization of class inequality through religious-cultural notions of ‘fate’ and ‘social hierarchy’. Whatever combination of these three it may be, its durability and resilience, despite exacerbating differences in material conditions, remains for all to see.

So how does this hegemony actively manifest itself in the towns and cities of 21st century Punjab? For starters, as mentioned in the Charar pind case, there is a complete absence of a working class or redistributive narrative in the province’s mainstream politics. Both the ruling party (PML-N), and the principal opposition party (PTI), are staffed and led by middle or upper-class individuals, espousing policy ideals of ‘clean capitalism’ or ‘efficient capitalism’. Similarly, their associational relationships – i.e. their roots in civil society – lie with propertied collectives like doctors’ associations, bar councils, trader bodies, and commerce chambers. In short, both parties run fairly stable, elite-serving electoral coalitions, despite operating in a landscape where the median voter is quite poor. This stability would simply be impossible without the active participation of the popular classes ‘from below’.

Secondly, this hegemonic arrangement is increasingly visible within the realm of urban governance, especially in murky matters of land acquisition and real estate development.

Writing about India, Michael Levien documents the rise of ‘dispossession politics’, i.e. movements emerging from state-led land acquisition for ‘developmental’ purposes.1 The state’s construction of dams and barrages, and increasingly private developments like suburban townships, and Special Economic Zones under the colonial-era Land Acquisition Acts, have catalysed conflict and bred a new set of resistive tools. Hence, according to Levien, movements like the famous Nandigram conflict that led to the defeat of the Left in West Bengal, constitute a new disruptive force in the face of neoliberal capitalism’s onward march in the global South.

In stark contrast, while the patterns of acquisition and privatized infrastructure development are replicated in the cities of Punjab, like Lahore and Rawalpindi, the organized resistance often seen as a consequence in parts of Latin America, Southeast Asia, and India, is largely missing. In the recent case of the Lahore Metrobus mass transit projects, for example, critiques remained restricted to fiscal concerns and spending priorities, as opposed to the acquisition practices that displaced several low-income settlements near Azadi Chowk and Shahdara.

Even when dispossessed citizens organize and attempt to resist government practices, as in the case of the Lahore-Sheikhupura Garments City industrial estate, they do so through the judicial system, which nearly always sides with the state’s definition of public interest. All that they receive in return for using the courts is a premium on the price offered by the government.

While the use or threat of coercion and the complete lack of working class organization partially accounts for the lack of conflict, the active consensus forged between the dispossessed and the dispossessor over this form of neoliberal development is also a major factor. Villagers in Punjab’s peri-urban fringes now actively court state acquisition of their agricultural land, hoping to gain exemption plots in subsequently built townships.

Most recently, in the case of the proposed Lahore Development Authority (LDA) City – a massive 61,000-acre middle-class housing project in Lahore – private parties, tasked by the government to buy the land, have been engaging with small-holders in 7 different peri-urban settlements. In the last documented instance, the government was ‘pleased to report’ that all villagers were complying with the acquisition deadline.

The Charar-DHA relationship makes perfect sense in a context where working class compliance is not only coerced but also culturally and ideationally reproduced. The state and private capital’s perpetuation of a consumerist fantasy – encapsulated by shopping malls and gated communities – serves the elite in more than just the obvious way of catering to their material needs; it also serves as the ultimate aspiration, as that one benchmark for everyone – propertied or property-less – to strive towards. And in doing so it masks the real, material differences required to sustain it.

Umair Javed is a graduate student in political sociology. He can be contacted on his twitter @umairjav or his e-mail umairjaved@lumsalumni.pk.

  1. Levien, Michael (2013), ‘The Politics of Dispossession: Theorizing India’s Land Wars’, Politics and Society, 41(3), 351-394 []

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