By Prakash Kona
It is very difficult to find anything to be optimistic about in Pakistan given the predatory role that religion has assumed in the day-to-day lives of common people. It is one of those countries where you could actually stand on the street and count the number of rational people who have a sense of what is at stake for them as a people and as a nation-state. This again is not for lack of talent. I think they’re an extremely talented people. I am certain that the performance industry in South Asia would be completely different if Pakistani singers and actors would be allowed to compete on an open platform with Indians in television and films. I also think that the streets of Pakistan’s cities would be flooded with Indian tourists because of its amazing street food, a glimpse of which you can catch on YouTube. Since nation-states are built on the vested interests of the powerful something like that is not going to happen in the near future.
Otherwise, Pakistan as a nation is on a suicide mission and the lynching of the Sri Lankan national is symptomatic of that. It’s like some people, that I’ve come across, who have no intention of living because they have no concept of what life is all about, but who do not know how to die, only because they are afraid to take their lives. This is exactly the psychology of people who fall back on organized religion for solutions when everything else has virtually collapsed.
One of the great things about the modern world is that people have opportunities to speak their minds; what they do or speak could sometimes be extremely offensive and defamatory; but, we don’t have to take everything personally. In the cases that we do take offense, they could be resolved in a court of law or through non-violent public protest or simply by speaking or writing about it. The blasphemy culture in Pakistan is deadlier than a cobra, viper and a python in your bed sheets. It is not merely about something being offensive to a bunch of so-called believers. A person could be murdered in cold blood simply because he or she woke up on the wrong side of the bed; and something he or she inadvertently said or did or did not say or did not do, could lead to the person’s death. The tragedy of the Sri Lankan factory manager’s murder by the mob in Sialkot has to be put in perspective.
There is something eerily similar to the mob that lynched the Sri Lankan national and the mob assaulting a woman on Pakistan’s 74th independence day. This is the brutality of the dispossessed and the powerless that refuses to recognize civilization in any of its manifestations. In both the cases what has happened is extremely inhuman and the solution to it is definitely not putting the men in jail or sentencing them to death. Obviously the inhumanity is stemming from a lack of respect for life or for the body and soul of another human being. What would a prison sentence mean to such a person even if it means eventually sending him to the gallows! What are the alternatives given to the oppressed classes except to turn into wolves at the first available opportunity! The powerless want the system to recognize that they are alive and not dead, yet. They can only prove it through a collective madness, the herd mindset, for which there is no justification except one that is offered by religion and promoted by politics. Burton Stein makes the point rather well in his A History of India:
“Unnoticed until quite recently have been other voices who have also resorted to a religious idiom to press their appeals for justice. These groups were subordinate to, and victims of, that petty bourgeoisie which had succeeded in making religious communalism their ideology, just as the professional bourgeoisie made secularism theirs. In an era when there no longer exist whole and viable communities to extol or preserve, religion continues to provide a language for claims even when these are but the wistful and in the end ineffectual pleas of the oppressed who hope their oppressors can be blackmailed by tradition, shamed by old values into honourable conduct.”
When masses turn into mobs, a good part of the reason is because there are no “whole and viable communities to extol or preserve,” but instead political parties taking advantage of these groups victimized into embracing religious communalism as their lifeline. The blasphemy culture in Pakistan is a euphemism for the politics of murder.
This however, may not be peculiar to Pakistan or India, but could be globally true as Burton Stein points out:
“Communalist politics in India, like fundamentalist politics in the Middle East and the United States, reflect the interests and the fears of the large segment of national populations of the lower – middle class whose economic and social security is ever at hazard and is so perceived.”
The “professional bourgeoisie” has little to worry about what happens outside their homes because they are not affected by the tides of change. It is the lower middle class income groups that live in a state of perpetual anxiety because their future is not guaranteed. What do they do then, in the face of change?
“The lower – middle classes in India, as everywhere else it seems, wrapped the vulnerability of their economic position in religion symbols – saffron here, black there. In India, in Iran and in Texas, these symbols signify conventional righteousness and the preservation of things as they are. The very rich and powerful, associated in India with secularism, remind them of the better state to which they aspire, but also teach them how unlikely they are to achieve it. The very poor threaten a frightening alternative. Religion provides a surrogate discourse for the maintenance of the barely adequate in the face of dangerous kinds of change.” (Burton Stein)
Religion is that “frightening alternative” in the face of “dangerous kinds of change” that the working and lower-middle classes cling to, for lack of any possibility of ever being secularized through the attainment of wealth. Politicians need to keep the status quo intact for the power elites. The best way to do it is to keep the masses poor, backward and ignorant, turn them into mobs and unleash them on the streets. Consequences are immaterial as long as it does not directly impact the lives of the powerful.
The blasphemy culture that lead to the death of the Sri Lankan man is not very different from the sexism and the misogyny that lead to the assault of the woman in Lahore. Both of them thrive on the general instability of the society as a whole which create a suicidal disregard for rational and humane thinking. I am not advocating that the masses should abandon religion altogether. But the kind of sham and mockery that passes for normal religious behavior as displayed by the mob in Sialkot should be combated by creating the conditions for redistributive justice and modern education, that humanizes by enabling the masses to see themselves as individuals with a mind of their own.