Lahore: urban space, niche repression

Saskia Sassen
21 November 2007

All images courtesy of OCCO, a community organization set up and run by Attiq Uddin Ahmed

I left Lahore towards the end of the first week of the state of emergency declared on Saturday 4 November 2007. My experience then was that the "Pakistani street" was still not quite rising. At that point - and the situation remains the same, over two weeks later - this was president-general Pervez Musharraf's main concern: not fighting terrorism, but fighting democracy. My sense of things in Lahore saw this concern from the other side, as it were; as I wrote in a comment for the Guardian, it appeared to me that the geography of conflict and repression in Lahore was extremely specialised (see "Pakistan's two worlds", 7 November 2007). It involved only certain spaces and certain groups - lawyers, opposition members, and media; I called it "niche repression".

And yet, these spaces and groups were all the western media focused on when they looked at Pakistan. This is understandable, on several levels; but it also means that the media was unable to address the big question ("will the street rise?") because television coverage especially made it look as if the street had risen. But it hadn't. My experience of the street in Lahore was of bustling shops and bazaars: no closed shops, no drawn shutters.

Saskia Sassen would like to thank her hosts and guides in Lahore, Razi Ahmed and Attiq Uddin Ahmed, who were also the source of the images and the historical references used in this article

Even today, there has been no massive demonstration in any major Pakistani city. There are many images of violence in the western media; but in this very act the critical political questions are avoided. The violence is real, even if highly targeted. It is a tragic part of the story. Every time a group - lawyers, students, opposition party activists - protests, there are arrests. But there are also diffuse millions of Pakistani citizens reluctant to join them, to rise on their own account.

A living history

Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, and at the London School of Economics.

Also by Saskia Sassen in openDemocracy:

"Free speech in the frontier-zone" (February 2006)

"A state of decay" (May 2006)

"Migration policy: from control to governance" (13 July 2006)

"Making liberal democracy work in bad times" (18 July 2007)

I was in Lahore as the guest of a new organisation set up and directed by Attiq Uddin Ahmed called the Office for Conservation and Community Outreach - Lahore. That enabled me to become immersed in that other Lahore, a city where politics is wired into urban space itself.

Lahore is a historic city not just because of its Mughal legacy and extraordinary architecture, but also because it has long been a political centre. Here are just ten episodes in Lahore's political history, aspects of its urban, spatial life:

* Lahore's Minto Park in the early 1930s was the site of the "Pakistan resolution". This was the pledge to create a separate homeland for the Muslims of British India, which first surfaced at a massive congregation of the Muslim League's leadership, including Jinnah. The site, post-resolution and post-1947, saw the construction of a slender tapering structure à la Eiffel Tower called the Minar-i-Pakistan. It has a great deal symbolism attached to it; to this day, the site is invoked and appropriated by political actors (of all persuasions) for "groundbreaking" pledges and fresh agendas

* Lahore is home to the grave of Allama Iqbal (a prominent Muslim poet, who was the first to propose the idea of a separate homeland for the Muslims). His grave is in the Hazuri Bagh (a public space) with the grand setting of the Lahore Fort and Badshahi mosque on two sides and Mughal walls along the other two

* Lahore in 1952 saw bloody rioting against a sect of Islam represented by the Ahmadiyya, whom orthodox Muslims refer to as "heretics" and therefore outside the faith. As a result of the rioting, martial law was declared in the city of Lahore - Pakistan's first flavour of this form of rule

* Lahore has a long tradition of political activism, from revolutionary poets of the independence era such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib (both sons of Lahore) to figures of the student-protest era of the 1960s who protested about the Vietnam war and martial law such as Tariq Ali

Also in openDemocracy on Pakistan's accelerating crisis:

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan signals red" (5 July 2007 )

Maruf Khwaja, "The war for Pakistan" (24 July 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Pakistan: farewell to democracy" (29 October 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: the power of the gun" (7 November 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pervez Musharraf's desperate gamble" (5 November 2007)

Salman Raja, "Pakistan: inside the storm" (9 November 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan's multi-faceted crisis" (12 November 2007)

Paul Rogers, "A Pakistani dilemma" (15 November 2007)

Shaun Gregory, "Musharraf: the fateful moment" (16 November 2007)

Iftikhar H Malik, "Pakistan: misgovernance to meltdown" (19 November 2007)

* Lahore in the 1970s saw bloody protests when "the street rose" against the popularly elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who rigged the 1976 elections even though he would have won). Lahore's fabric felt the strains of shop shutdowns accompanied with the traders and lawyers marching in the streets, often employing violence

* In the early 1980s, Lahore saw the emergence of a grouping by the name of the Women's Action Forum (WAF) in reaction to the "black laws" (against minorities and women). The WAF paid the costs of its activism; its members were tear-gassed, beaten up and put behind bars, but that didn't crush their spirit

* In April 1986, Lahore saw the unprecedented gathering of more than a million people to welcome Benazir Bhutto when she returned from exile to lead her party into elections, which were eventually held in November 1988

* Lahore has long been the power-base of Pakistan's federation. Punjabis are the largest group among Pakistan's population and are inordinately represented in the bureaucracy and army in relation to Pakistan's other ethnicities

* Before partition, Lahore was a bastion of political activity in the Punjab as well. Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah (and other leaders) came to Lahore to conduct meetings, mobilise the influential Punjabis and benefit from the location of the undivided Punjab which put Lahore smack in the centre of Punjab. Many of the sites where Nehru and Gandhi held meetings have been conveniently forgotten as part of the "selective amnesia" project carried out by the state's actors; one such example is the now-decrepit Bradlaugh Hall.

* Lahore is much cherished and invoked by the Lahori diaspora in India. Many of them are people who migrated at the time of partition, leaving abandoned the mansions, havelis and streets that until then were populated by Lahore's Hindus and Sikhs. For example, the narrow street we drove in behind the Sir Ganga Ram Trust Building, where stood townhouses once built for the industrial workers.

What is happening today? Most recently, Lahore's Indo-Saracenic-style high-court building saw the first full-scale protest in Pakistan against the sacking of the supreme-court's chief justice (Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry) by Pervez Musharraf on 9 March 2007. But there has been little follow-up. Has Musharraf with his niche repression succeeded in depoliticising even Lahore?

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