War of narratives | Pakistan Today

War of narratives

Using sensitive issues for political gains

The past two weeks of Pakistan’s politics have been tumultuous, presenting a disconsolate depiction of where the country is heading in the coming months and years. Moments before the Supreme Court of Pakistan gave its verdict in the Aasia Bibi blasphemy case, everything seemed normal with roads, highways, cities and major urban centers going through their normal daily routine. The verdict brought pockets of protesters out across the country and suddenly everything went haywire with reports of major cities and highways being shut down.

For two days, people’s normal life came to a standstill with the protesters and the government accusing each other of taking actions that were not in any way in Pakistan’s national interest. On the one hand, the country’s top court gave a verdict that presented a situation which was the result of facts and a detailed investigation. Various protesting groups on their part believed that the court’s verdict was not a just verdict and the accused should have been sentenced to death.

What followed after the verdict was appalling. The country was put under lockdown for days and streets and roads presented scenes of looting and plundering. The government’s signing of an agreement may have brought normalcy back to the country but we are certainly in a situation which doesn’t point toward a nonaggressive future ahead. Much has been written about the merits and demerits of the case. However, what remains less explored is the issue of how the country’s ruling elite is not making efforts to ensure that its narrative, which will surely strengthen the state’s position, sticks. This can only be possible if the country’s ruling elite were seen as delivering with good governance rather than doing politics over sensitive issues.

The challenge that Pakistan faces in the form of various political and religious groups provoking the state did not simply happen overnight. It’s a situation that has been brewing for many years and decades. Pakistan’s political parties have for decades relied on right-wing forces for electoral purposes. In the process, such groups have in return deepened their own narrative in a society whose legitimacy has been built on terming the state’s narrative as unfit for common people’s interests and lives.

Instead, this entire episode should be a lesson for the country’s ruling elite when it comes to their political priorities which certainly impact the state’s narrative.

While one can criticize the narrative of hate which was peddled for days by the protesters, it’s alarming that such a narrative has also started to resonate with the masses. Unfortunately, terming the government and the court system illegitimate for their inability to hand death sentence to an innocent person has reverberated with the masses. Moreover, the narrative of hate has also muddied other state institutions, particularly the military, which doesn’t serve the country’s interests. It’s important to note that following the coercion and threats which were hurled against various state institutions last week, a number of non-state actors that the country’s military has been trying to deal with such as the Jamaat Al-Ahrar (JA), gave statements supporting the protesters questionable narrative. Various militant groups that have been forced out of the country and have found sanctuaries in Afghanistan or elsewhere were also supporting protesters narrative of putting the state’s identity into question.

The entire situation which Pakistan has experienced a few days ago should not be seen as a one-off incident. Instead, this entire episode should be a lesson for the country’s ruling elite when it comes to their political priorities which certainly impact the state’s narrative. A protester in the street should not be following a cleric blindly: it’s the state’s responsibility to build stakes for its citizens, which can be in the form of reviving the country’s economy to rebooting the broken education system to doing politics over progressive and meaningful issues rather than supporting and standing behind narratives and supporting voices that hurt Pakistan’s interests.

Certainly, politics in Pakistan has become a war of narratives and we see a clear divide between the ruling elite and people who stand to gain by illegitimatizing the ruling elite’s way of politics and their narrative. This effects Pakistan: the protesters in streets to some degree are convinced about their mission which finds a cause in undermining the country’s political elite, and in process impacting the ability of other state institutions to work and deliver. This doesn’t bode well for Pakistan’s peaceful future. It’s high time that Pakistan’s political elite comes together and engage religious groups beyond the issues that have become the entire focus of their politics. We need effective and smart governance as well as opposition from political parties while making sure that elected leaders are seen as delivering for only that can reverse the gains which religious hardliners have been making over the course of last few years.

Umair Jamal

Umair Jamal is a graduate of the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University. He is a research fellow with the Centre for Governance and Policy. He regularly writes for various media outlets. He can be contacted on Twitter: @UJAmaLs.