Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression

Furhan Iqbal
18 February 2008

The general election of 18 February 2008 in Pakistan takes place amid violence. The campaign has been marked by numerous assaults on authorities and civilians, and frequent suicide-bomb attacks on political rallies, which have exacted great loss of life; the nearest estimate is that in total around 150 people have been killed. The bombing of a Pakistan People's Party meeting on 16 February which killed forty-seven people and wounded 110 in Parachinar, in the Kurram district of northern Pakistan, is only the most bloody of such incidents.

Such attacks represent the continuation of a pattern that has been evident for much of the last year. In May 2007, for example, violent clashes between supporters of the deposed chief justice of Pakistan's supreme court (Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhry) and those of the country's general-president Pervez Musharraf (who had suspended Choudhry on 8 March) resulted in the death of forty people and injuries to many more. On 12 July, the Pakistani army raided the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad to break the control of the groups that was holding it, resulting in the death of eight soldiers and fifty militants. On 17 July, a suicide-bomber struck Islamabad, killing twelve people and wounding many more. In October, three days of heavy fighting in the troubled North Waziristan province took the lives of 250 people. The year ended with a further paroxysm of violence, when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto (whose return from exile on 18 October was met by a suicide- bomb attack on a convoy that killed 126 and wounded many more) was assassinated on 27 December in Rawalpindi.

Furhan Iqbal is a consultant psychiatrist working in Britain. He writes in a personal and independent capacity

This melancholy list could be extended almost indefinitely - and indeed encompass most of Pakistan's six decades of existence. For the last year of violence in Pakistan, though it evidently is connected to current problems of authoritarian rule and extremist ideology, is only part of a much larger problem of a country plagued by violence since its formation in 1947.

My purpose in this article is to stand back from the immediate issues of politics and the election to ask: what are the deeper roots of Pakistan's problem of violence?

The place of violence

Pakistan's sixty-year history has been characterised by frequent moments when civilian rule is abruptly ended by the premature intervention of the military. The army's purported aim, like that of most dictatorial regimes, has been to defend national sovereignty, honour and interests. The latest such occasion was 3 November 2007, when General Musharraf declared a state of emergency in anticipation of an unfavourable decision by the supreme court regarding his re-election as president. In effect, Musharraf's action expressed the reality of such military interventions: that they are an attack on the country that holds the constitution and the rights of its citizens in abeyance. This also is violence: not the sort where people are killed, maimed and tortured (though that too is often the effect of military rule) but violence of a social and psychological nature.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Pakistan under Pervez Musharraf:

Irfan Husain, "The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

Irfan Husain, "How democracy works in Pakistan" (29 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, ""Pakistan's permanent crisis" (15 May 2007)

Anatol Lieven, "At the Red Mosque in Islamabad" (4 June 2007)

Paul Rogers, "Pakistan's peril" (19 July 2007)

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

Irfan Husain, "Pakistan: the enemy within" (30 July 2007)

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

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

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

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

Saskia Sassen, "Lahore: urban space, niche repression" (21 November 2007)

Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan: after Benazir Bhutto" (28 December 2007)

Maruf Khwaja, "Pakistan: dynasty vs democracy" (9 January 2007) The role of the military - and its counterpart, political extremism - have been central to analyses of Pakistan. But they fail to explain the centrality of violence in Pakistani politics and consequently how to deal with this seemingly insurmountable challenge. The place of violence in the history of Pakistan needs to be considered as a problem in its own right; this can in principle provide a framework in which events in Pakistan are seen as part of a larger story of history and its denial, one where the people and the state are engaged in a sort of neurotic dance - forever repeating that which can neither be fully remembered nor completely forgotten.

The acts of Pervez Musharraf in seeking to curb the independent judiciary and media are of especial interest here - since these agencies have sought to bring to conscious awareness the horrors of the past and the present. The general has thus sought here to repress what both the military regimes and the people have colluded in repressing: their perverse relationship with violence. The implication of this analysis is that should the horrors of what has been inflicted and suffered be made conscious, then the floodgates of psychic repression will be broken and memories released - with incalculable and unsettling consequences.

The repression of memory

The notion of Pakistan, conceived as a homeland for the Muslims, owes its existence to acts of violence; social and psychological as well as physical, and often committed against one another by members of communities that had in the main coexisted peacefully for centuries in pre-partition India. Pakistan initially received only lukewarm support as a homeland for the Muslims of India. It was only when communal violence in all its forms erupted in the sub-continent that the concept of Pakistan became their aspiration and eventual creation. The development of the idea of Pakistan acquired a life of its own alongside the massacres and excesses both against and by members of Muslim communities.

A combination of factors - including lack of political foresight, incompetence and narrow self-interest on the part of the major parties of the time, the Muslim League and the Congress - allowed a cycle of orchestrated violence to take hold. There were perpetrators and victims of violence on both sides. This violence tore the social fabric and destroyed assumptions about life. The violence connected the two newborn countries of India and Pakistan at the time of their partition; yet for those fleeing to safety on the other side, the cost of survival was the removal of this experience from memory. In Pakistan, this pressure was particularly acute since the myths of "purity" and of the "land of the pure" could not be made compatible with acknowledgment of responsibility for great violence.

Those who crossed the border to join their Muslim brethren in the "land of the pure" continued to carry with them both the shame of being a refugee and the shame of believing in a notion that was never to be. Those who documented the horrors of the period were sidelined or sometimes even prosecuted, for "the people" as well as the authorities did not want to know, could not bear to know. An effect of this collusion between the people and the state was that much of the violence perpetrated in the past and present was projected into others, against whom people and state need to remain prepared. The military, the repository of violent urges disowned and a symbol of readiness to meet external and internal threats, became all powerful, both feared and revered. The people signed a covenant with the military: to sanction eternal engagement in violence, but never to be reminded of it.

The burden of shame

States and people use various means to ensure that what cannot be tolerated remains unthinkable and unspeakable: among them languages and narratives that facilitate the process of forgetting, ensuring that intolerable memories remain buried. In the official narrative of Pakistan, the massacres of the Muslims at the hands of the Hindus and Sikhs are remembered, the massacres of the Hindus and Sikhs by the Muslims are forgotten; those who chose death over dishonour are remembered, those who were dishonoured but survived are forgotten; the arrival of the refugees in the "land of the pure" is remembered, the horrors that welcomed them are forgotten; the victories of the leaders are remembered, their incompetence and acts of self-interest are forgotten.

Conflicts and inconvenient truths find no language where they can exist; obsessive attempts are made to expunge from memory any trace of violence (perpetrated and endured) that evokes feelings of shame. The necessary place of the hated "other" in this neurotic dance is to act as the eternally needed repository of all disavowed feelings.

This is the context too in which the saga of Bangladesh unfolded in 1970-71, when the military of the "land of the pure" acted with impunity, committing terrible atrocities in an attempt to prevent a breakaway from Pakistan. Yet the responsibility belongs also to the people and politicians who remained silent in face of atrocity. The thousands who came onto the streets to protest against the rule of General Ayub Khan did not protest against the atrocities committed by the military against the civilian population of Bangladesh. The people did not know, chose not to know, could not bear to know, what heinous crimes were being perpetrated.

The secret of narrative

Pakistan was created in the name of Islam - according to the official myth. The "Muslims", God's people, created a state of their own and duly named it the "Islamic Republic of Pakistan". At a single stroke the divine was conflated with the state, the acts of which - however brutal - were thus viewed as being sanctioned by the divine. This gave people permission not to think and not to remember. Violence against others is in the name of the divine; violence endured is divinely ordained fate. In this context, thinking is unacceptable as it equates to a challenge to the divine, ensuring that what has been forgotten is never recalled to memory.

But a nation that fails to remember its past has no future. The forgotten haunts it, endlessly repeating itself through violent acts that are both denied and vociferously repressed. This is not merely a matter of repression being unleashed on innocent people, but of an active act of forgetting the shame of being party to such acts, having tacitly supported such acts, and having endured such acts. If there is hope for Pakistan beyond politics, then the people need to be given and to acquire a language in which their pain and shame can be acknowledged and explored.

The election of 18 February 2008 is also the culmination of weeks of activism by those - including the independent judiciary, journalists and many citizens - who at great cost to themselves have sought to affirm democratic values in face of violence both from the state and from militants and extremists. The logic of their efforts is to expose the collusive enterprise of repression and forgetting in which the military and the people of Pakistan have been engaged. The way forward for Pakistan is to build on these efforts, through making conscious what has been actively repressed as a ground from which solutions may emerge. For Pakistanis this means to acknowledge and accept the trauma and shame of their past, to acknowledge and accept the violence committed in their name and endured by them and their others. It is through such a process - including the creation through dialogue of alternative, open, honest narratives of themselves and their past - that the violence which has disfigured Pakistan can be overcome.


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