Lahore’s Elite Logic

Aug 2013

Issue V

Artist: Ayesha Malik | "Going to the barbershop."

Artist: Ayesha Malik | “Going to the barbershop.”

A rapidly urbanizing global South is one of the most crucial features of our contemporary era: Millions of peasants are migrating to the cities, and the countryside is affected by ever-expanding megapolises. While urban space remains more critical for capitalist reproduction today than ever before, it is also becoming a key site for political battles between the state and society’s marginalized sections. From Cairo to Istanbul to Sao Paulo, mass protests demonstrate both the brutality and alienation of the urban experience–revealing the fragile nature of government control, and the creative ways in which urban space can be used to confront state power. Pakistan is no different.

Pakistan has witnessed a rapid urbanization in the last three decades. This development comes alongside the rise of the commercial and political significance of cities. Much like the rest of the world, land speculation has played a key role in the high growth rates witnessed under the fourth army ruler, General Pervez Musharraf–as well as in the rise of an upwardly mobile and politically assertive middle class. The simultaneous rise in the value of urban land, and increased rural to urban migration is at the heart of the complex processes that shape the urban experience in contemporary Pakistan.

Pakistan’s cultural capital Lahore has been subject to these transformations–many of which are best understood in reference to the city’s colonial heritage. There is a need to comprehend the country’s urbanization processes in detail–the dearth of research is one of the greatest omissions from Pakistan’s social science literature. But there is also a need to understand the experiential dimension of urban totalities regulated by class anxieties and the exigencies of Capital: Though millions inhabit the city of Lahore, a vast majority of the urban poor remain absent from its meaning, and the decisions regarding its development. An activist, and not just a scholarly, project will be necessary to force the government and the city administration to count all of its citizens as collective stakeholders, instead of subjecting their lives to the whims of private profit.

Development and the urban poor

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Lahore underwent massive spatial and administrative transformations under colonial rule. In his work, “Making Lahore Modern” <ahref=””>William Glover shows how British authorities reconfigured the city to signify colonial power. Urban space was planned along a racial logic: The newly built Mall Road contained government buildings meant to

separate British rulers from the inner city’s native hordes. However, despite their attempts to separate themselves, the construction of a new Lahore on top of an indigenous population meant that the British remained perpetually nervous about their minority status, and potential local opposition.

In the early 1860s, British authorities began devising strategies to regulate public hygiene. The aim was to prevent the flow of disease from indigenous populations to Lahore’s European residents, and to British Indian soldiers living in the newly built Mian Mir Cantonment. While the policy ostensibly appeared to address the city’s health and cleanliness conditions, it had the more important effect of establishing a dominant narrative about the city’s inhabitants: The practices of local residents are not only a threat to the British, they are also a threat to the city’s indigenous residents themselves. The narrative runs something like this: Locals require the benevolent intervention of the colonial state to discipline them, even if it means the use of the state’s coercive apparatus. The idea of an unruly population that needed to be tamed and a colonial state that had the obligation to save subjects from themselves played a key role in constructing how colonial India understood criminality. Unfortunately, these ideas remain one of the most lasting legacies of colonial rule: Contemporary elites and civil servants in city bureaucracies continue to depict the urban poor as a threat to the establishment of order in a city and use the depiction to justify the most obscene methods of policing poor neighborhoods.

Throughout the colonial period, Lahore transformed itself from a city that housed the colonial ruling class, to a space that serviced the needs of those that would replace them, namely an indigenous elite. As Indians gradually began entering the British state apparatus through the civil service, the city witnessed the emergence of housing colonies for this newly emergent local ruling class. Early settlements for professionals emerged in places like Cantonment, Model Town and areas connected to Mall Road.

Despite deliberate colonial policies separating the British and their collaborators from the so-called dangerous classes, Lahore did not witness a radical uprooting of local populations on the scale witnessed by both European and colonial cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (except of course during the partition, but it was not directly a result of developmental policies in the city). Surprisingly, it was not until the 1990s, when the Sharif brothers–Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, and the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif–conceived a new vision of Lahore as Paris that the city began to witness its most dramatic transformation in decades.

The Sharifs and dreams of a Parisian Lahore

There were more affinities with Paris than the government itself might have appreciated. After the failed revolution of 1848, Paris became a testing ground for creating a distinct urban space that would display the might of the nation-state and rid the public space from problematic and unwanted elements, such as political dissidents and the urban poor. Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the architect of this plan who would later inspire city planners all over the world, sought to build a rationally planned urban space with long, wide boulevards running through the city. In order to achieve his goal, Haussmann ordered the clearance of poorer neighborhoods from the city center, while the high rent rates ensured that the urban poor had to find housing on the outskirts of the city. The expanded avenues and boulevards also meant that troops could be mobilized quickly, in case Paris witnessed another uprising by the city’s inhabitants.

Lahore’s Haussmann moment arrived in the 1990s as successive governments started to chase the mirage of an ordered society, both by beautifying the city and by attempting to make poverty invisible in city life. They embarked on an ambitious plan to build highways and flyovers, and to broaden important boulevards in Lahore’s main commercial hubs, like Gulberg, Model Town, Defence, and the Canal, as well as the newly emergent residential areas around Thokar Niaz Beg and Township. Soon after, the reconfigured urban spaces witnessed the mushrooming of international franchises, vast shopping malls, and a cafe culture that integrated Lahore’s urban middle class into a global consumption culture.

Another crucial aspect of urban development was the phenomenal rise in the value of land within Lahore and its peripheries. Particularly after 2001, Pakistan witnessed an unprecedented growth in the real estate sector, with a massive flow of capital entering the land market in search of quick profits. In the same period, the construction of housing colonies emerged as one of the most lucrative businesses in the city, as more and more sections of the upper middle class sought so-called respectable housing. As a result, the city and big investors continued to view land as a safe bet for their investments.

What was lost in this profit-making frenzy was the growing gap between those sections of society who owned land and those who were landless. While the landed class found unprecedented avenues for upward social mobility, the landless classes were even further marginalized, since the rising costs of land meant that they found it increasingly difficult to find decent and affordable housing. In addition, the increased rural to urban migration, as well as the occupation of rural land by a rapidly growing city, resulted in the phenomenal growth of Lahore’s population. A vast majority of this population hailed from classes that had little participation in the development miracle that was taking shape in the city–except, of course, when they were forced to leave the slums they called homes to pave the way for newly planned housing societies for the city’s elite and real estate tycoons.

Today, the city’s poorer neighborhoods are overpopulated and receive little attention from authorities for development purposes, since there is little money to be made through investments in health and educational facilities or affordable housing for the poor as compared to the money that can be made off of consuming classes in the city’s posh areas. Yet, if one were to transform Lahore into a Paris of the East, scenes of abject poverty littered around the city would not be allowed to interrupt the goal of achieving a global city. It is the resolution of this problem that gives contemporary Lahore its uniqueness, and an authoritarian ethos: the management of urban space in order to render the poor invisible.

There are three primary ways in which a demarcation was created between the elite areas of the city and those that contained Lahore’s working people. The first consists of roads and flyovers that allow people to travel directly from one elite area into another, by-passing the hundreds and thousands of people who live in the middle. One classic example is the Jinnah flyover that connects Gulberg to Defence, beneath which lives one of the city’s oldest and most neglected working class neighborhoods. This flyover partly functions to construct a distance between the society’s elite sections and the urban poor, in order to maintain the fiction of a Europe-like urban space for the former. The second method consists in widening the roads and pushing back any homes or shops encroaching onto the main roads. The process of creative destruction can be seen in places like Ferozepur Road or Township, which happen to be right next to Kot Lakhpat, once a bastion of militant trade union activity, which has now been made almost completely invisible when these highways are crossed by car. The third (and least subtle) method is the installation of physical barriers to keep unwanted elements out of housing societies. In these cases, there is an unambiguous message that elites stand above society and almost everyone who does not belong to this class is a suspect. Such a perverse celebration of privilege can be viewed in many of the newly established housing societies in the city, as well as in places like Defence and Cantt. Most posh areas, however, often deploy a mix of these methods in constructing space and regulating the flow of undesirable bodies.

It is no surprise, then, that a vast majority of Lahore’s middle classes that grew up in the city in the last three decades have little to no relationship with large sections of the city’s population. The proliferation of English medium schools, and the integration of Lahore’s middle class young into a global popular culture, has accelerated their alienation from mainstream society. One can pass through these highways, boulevards and flyovers for years without ever having to confront the destitution that exists right next to the islands of prosperity one belongs to.

The construction and separation of the two worlds has also meant that elites feel endless anxieties, particularly since poorer neighborhoods are thought to be urban heterotopias: places of filth, crime, ignorance and decadence that need to be kept in control to ensure the reproduction of order in the city. From the point of view of the working class, the relationship between them and the city becomes even more abstract. They witness some of the most spectacular changes in the city’s landscapes, the circulation of vast sums of money, and the appearance of global commodities in their local markets, but remain bystanders without any share in the apparent prosperity of their city. It is primarily this reason that cities have become prone to riots that often end up targeting shops, banks, cars and other symbols of prosperity for the rich. In the eyes of those looking in from the sidelines, these are all symbols of desire and hatred for the poor. The Pakistani state and elites’ response to such threats is borrowed directly from the colonial era–dissent is criminalized, and urban spaces are witnessing a militarized regulation.

Militarization and urban space

Stephen Graham, an urban studies scholar, recently argued that governments around the world have begun to use techniques of war to administer urban space and to regulate their local populations.

Lahore is no different–except a closer look indicates that the city’s militarization was intertwined with the colonial administrations’ earliest modernization: Punjab was the most important military site in colonial India, and cantonments played a key role in producing urban space. The presence of militarized zones within a major city was a unique colonial experiment. In fact, some of the early legislation on regulating hygiene standards were made to protect soldiers in the British Indian Army, and were enforced through the regulation of cantonments and its adjoining areas by the military. Since the early 1980s, the relationship between the military and the city administration has tightened, with the former emerging as one of the largest stakeholders in Lahore’s real estate market.

It is indeed unique that a country’s military openly runs and regulates the most lucrative sections of the city, and has done so with an undeclared state of emergency. Entering the cantonment, one finds it difficult to escape the overt gestures of military might and the almost war-like preparedness displayed at various entrance points to the locality. The comparison to a war-like situation is not far off the mark: In fact, most of the initial land acquired by the Defence Housing Authority was forcibly snatched from cultivators in the Charrar Pind area, pushing a vast majority of them into a ghetto whose entrance points to the DHA are tightly regulated by the housing society’s security guards. It is often said that the original violence responsible for founding a society does not simply disappear during times of peace. On the contrary, it pervades and structures the society. The original violence behind the founding of housing societies reappears every time when power attempts to subjugate individuals. The violence, and the power wielding it, is thus constantly reestablishing its dominance over the same space, and the bodies that inhabit it. Most young adults are scrutinized when they enter these spaces, through, for example, heavily guarded checkpoints. The likelihood that they are pulled aside is higher if they happen to be on the wrong side of the class divide.

The DHA is not the only institution overtly uses force to regulate its internal space. Today, everyday life is militarized, worsened by elite anxieties around criminality and the maintenance of public order and permeating the entire spectrum of urban life. Security companies are increasingly common throughout the city, checkpoints and barriers have sprung up in posh areas, and obscene campaigns of servant registrations are being carried out to protect the elite from the poor. Police brutalities are on the rise in poorer neighborhoods, transforming every poor individual into a suspect.

Ironically, the demonization of the poor is happening at a time when hundreds and thousands of families have lost their homes, so the rich can have space to build their housing colonies. The housing and infrastructure needs of the poor have, for all intents and purposes, been ignored in this profit-making orgy, and been permanently excluded from the newly established avenues of cultural life in Lahore, such as cafes, restaurants, shopping malls, and parks.

Constructing an Alternative Urban Order

Capital remains the key structuring principle of the contemporary urban experience. Capital is endlessly thirsty for spaces of surplus production and absorption–and will do all in its power to constantly revolutionize the dynamics of time and space. The real estate boom and the mushrooming of housing societies are testaments to ways in which Capitalist reproduction dominates–over and above the needs of ordinary people. Narratives and ideologies that circulate within the city operate in service of Capital–they create a desire for an ordered society, a fear of the poor and the so-called dangerous classes, and construct a notion of criminality that ultimately reproduces conditions that perpetuate the status quo.

Unfortunately, the status quo holds a certain sway over the imagination of Lahore’s middle classes, aiding them as they enthusiastically participate in a widespread process of marginalization. Instead of raising their voices against the criminalization of the poor and demanding government investments in decent housing facilities for all, the politically-vocal middle classes have instead been deploying the notion that their world primarily consists of one dominant dichotomy: an educated middle class versus a large ignorant mass. These middle classes apply this dichotomy when they analyze the problems facing contemporary Lahore. This ostensibly neutral language has a powerful impact in reversing a narrative in which those on the margins are further stigmatized–precisely for being on the margins. In the meantime, the privileged are celebrated for having lived privileged lives. This bizarre reversal will have to be challenged and eventually overcome if we want to reframe the question of urban space, particularly since policy circles are often asking the wrong questions to begin with. A coalition between students and intellectuals with the working class has been the backbone of struggles for an equitable world, and it continues to maintain the potential of turning into a formidable force, as the experiences in the Middle East and Turkey illustrate, which is why winning over sections of the middle class is absolutely crucial.

Finally, there is no substitute for the active participation of the working masses, and for learning from their experiences in the city. Lahore has witnessed a number of riots in working class neighborhoods in recent years, mostly on the issue of loadshedding, but also against police high-handedness, slum evictions and other issues of day-to-day concern. While these protests allow us to grasp the contradictions inherent in an urban experience, and the potentialities of subverting urban space, by and large these protests have so far been unable to produce an over-arching Idea that can provide them historical significance–and ensure that the mass mobilization of the poor becomes something more than just a riot. Protests from around the world, including those that we are witnessing in Istanbul and Sao Paulo, indicate that citizens are establishing new relations with urban space at a distance from the imperatives of Capital and the cynical policy recommendations of governments.

For Lahore, we must actively seek to develop an Idea that can allow us to radically rethink our conceptions of the city and guide our political praxis. The first and foremost realization should be that a new thought can only develop from the margins of a situation, in this case peripheral regions such as Kot Lakhpat, Shahdara, Thokar Niaz Beg and many such working class areas, since they are most familiar with the isolation and brutality that characterizes the urban experience. We need to emphasize direct work with these communities, rather than judging them as the opposites of an educated and middle class milieu. There is also a need to develop a charter of demands on urban issues–including the end to land speculation and the provision of affordable housing for all residents in the city, the allocation of funds for infrastructural development, the abolishment of a state of emergency in posh areas and the consequent criminalization of poor youth, and more citizen participation in urban landscape development.

All of these demands will have the express aim of making the poor visible in city life, both politically and socially, and force the city and all of its residents to consider their areas as equally important and worthy. A continued emphasis on hiding poverty to achieve an ordered society will not only further marginalize the poor, but will also heighten the anxieties so widespread in our middle classes and our elites. Unless we address the marginalization of the poor, our upper echelons will remain caged in their own tiny spheres, needing armed protection to shield them from their fellow citizens, and deepening the militarization of Pakistani society. It is crucial to fight for a just and inclusive city life, despite the political and ideological challenges faced by any such radical project.

It is the collective struggles of ordinary people that have often subverted the cynical maneuverings of power. Their strength continues to remain our greatest hope in preventing our slide into a dystopic, authoritarian urban order, and finally freeing us from the ghosts of our colonial past.

Ammar Ali Jan is a doctoral student at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. He is also a political activist, and a member of the Awami Workers Party.


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