The Show Will Go on! | Daanish Mustafa

Mar 2013

English | اردو

The national and provincial assemblies have finally breathed their last. They had a full and tumultuous life and I suppose one could only pray for their salvation in the hereafter of history. There will be many analysts—the political equivalent of mercia go (professional grievers) who will recite the works of the deceased. To me, the end of the tenure of the assemblies is more akin to the end of a sports series—not cricket series, because cricket is a religion, and politics is a sport in our country. It is not that I mean to demean the political by calling it a sport, but rather to elevate the sport by making it political.

But politics matter to the real lives of people and sports don’t. Say that to your cricket junky friends and see what happens. On the other hand, politics in the limited sense of elections, people with oily mustaches, talk shows, corruption, establishments, ideologies of Pakistan, gharib awam etc. really don’t matter as much to Pakistanis’ daily lives as they are made out to be. Pakistan is a lot bigger than any politician, bureaucrat, or ambitious general. Regardless of what Zia-ul-Haq or the Taliban have done, people want education for their daughters. People say, that the Taliban destroyed hundreds of schools in FATA and Swat. I say, well it is good news that hundreds of (mostly private) girl’s schools at least existed to be destroyed in Orakzai in the first place. Twenty years ago, the Taliban would not have found a girls school in Orakzai to blow up! Pakistani worker, student, teacher, farmer, artists and civil society are ushering a social revolution regardless of what the politicians do. People need livelihoods, sociability, services and above all hope for the future, and they are not waiting for the politicians, generals or bureaucrats to deliver it to them. They are creating these things in their respective spheres.

Unfortunately, politics is understood and engaged in by the elites in a very limited sense as a route to power with the help of the cast of characters that inhabited the assemblies. In that sense, politics is indeed akin to a sport, and is in fact, practiced as such by Mr. Zardari and Mian Sahiban. But there is a deeper notion of politics too, that is politics as a requisite act for negotiating our differences and recognizing our shared humanity in our diversity. This is politics running through the capillaries of our social body. Politics in that sense, then, is not a sport, it is rather the sport that becomes political. It is in that sport that I find hope for Pakistan.

I have found German/American philosopher Hannah Arendt very helpful in thinking of politics in a deeper sense. She argues that politics is about “acting together and appearing in public, […] inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed.” In this conception the emphasis is on the local and the capacity of individuals to become political through “sheer human togetherness.” In togetherness, through action and interaction, individuals develop identities and connections to each other. Through what Arendt calls worldliness, humans enact public spaces and places where people can engage in perpetual action and interaction. Thus is enacted a stage where humans can establish and change who they are and what they are in relation to each other. Politics in this sense is not about goals but about perpetuation of action and reinvention of the self and the collective. Such carnivalesque togetherness, she argues, is the ultimate antidote to totalitarianism and tyranny, because totalitarianisms is predicated upon assumptions of religious or secular driven conceptions of a perfected humanity. Humanity is imperfect, and in worldliness it recognizes and reinvents itself through a celebration of its wonderful imperfections. The objective and methods of totalitarian regimes and ideologies is the destruction of “worldliness”.

Here the most joyful of sports, kite flying, takes on a political valence. In the right wing, puritanical world view, kite flying is a dangerous un-Islamic activity, where people (the horror!), and women (the horror, the horror!) engage in a social activity that does not fit into the an influential spectrum of the religious right’s dour conception of a pious patriarchal society–a society full of stoic bearded men with veiled women tethered to the kitchen, totally banished into the private apolitical world. We know the extremes of this spectrum through the Taliban. The safety argument is fatuous. Dangerous twine can easily be regulated and such unfortunate accidents avoided. Besides, kids climb trees and hurt themselves by falling, driving kills thousands every year, but that doesn’t mean that we cut all the trees and ban driving! Spontaneous performance in a collective enhances human sociability and individual diversity, while their totalitarian world view wants specimens of a species—the homo Islamicus—where one Muslim is substitutable for the other with little difference of thought and personality in-between.

Spaces and places of public togetherness have steadily been eroded in Pakistan. Cinema, circus, theatre, and street performance is being constricted in our country, partially out of an influential segment of our politico/religious elites’ infatuation with the Saudi totalitarian model. If anybody has doubts about that infatuation just look at the neon plates of God’s beautiful names on light poles on Peshawar road in Rawalpindi—same as in Saudi Arabia and nowhere else. The traffic lights don’t work and there are few traffic signs, but the Rawalpindi Cantonment Board piously informs us on Victoria Chowk that Hijazi means somebody who lives in Hijaz!

Politics in the instrumental sense of enhancing livelihoods and ensuring social justice do matter. But politics in the non-instrumental sense matter more. This is not a frivolously nihilistic position, as a friend once queried, but rather a radically emancipatory position. The political self is perpetually enacted through the carnivalesque performance of politics. So to mark the end of the 12th National Assembly of Pakistan, be subversive–go fly a kite. It will be an apt message to the world and most importantly to ourselves–we are alive, we are here, and the show will go on.

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.

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