City residents climbed onto their roofs and enjoyed the sunshine with kites. The police stood as silent observers.
People thoroughly enjoyed themselves in the winter sun. The sky was full of colourful kites all day. Despite many operations, the police have remained unsuccessful in eliminating kite and string sellers’ (Daily Duniya, circa February 2017.Cultural Wars And The Security State
On February 6 this year, in the industrial town of Sialkot in Pakistan’s Punjab province, the police arrested 59 people, including minors, for the acts of kite flying and the selling of kites and dor (kite string). Such operations are now almost routine during the spring season in Pakistani Punjab.
Yet only a few years ago, spring was unimaginable without the joyous and sociable activity of flying kites. Admittedly, the uniquely South Asian, or perhaps Punjabi, spirit of competitive kite flying had become a somewhat dangerous enterprise, causing the deaths of many unsuspecting motorcyclists whose throats were slit as they drove into reinforced doors strung across the roads. The Pakistani state’s reaction was to ban the activity outright, supposedly in the name of public safety. But everyone in Pakistan knows that is not the only reason. One that remains unsaid by the government but is publically articulated by the religious right around the time of Basant (spring festival) is that flying kites is an unIslamic tradition, with no place in an Islamic country.
Cultural Wars And The Security State
Then, on February 9, right-wing parties staged a protest against the conviction of 31 men for the lynching of a university student, Mashal Khan, on 13 April 13, 2017, in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Khan was rumoured to have committed blasphemy, a ‘crime’ that has led to many other lynchings in Pakistan. The link between banning kites and lynching a human being, then justifying it, may seem far-fetched. But the road between the two is terrifyingly short in Pakistan, and it is lined by middle-class anxieties and the security state.
Like most countries undergoing neo-liberal development, Pakistan has seen a meteoric rise in the ranks of the consumerist middle class. The country also has one of the highest urbanisation rates in Asia. This is largely thanks to the increasing commercialisation of agriculture driven by state policies that favour corporate and large farmers. The result is that a few sprawling metropolitan areas such as Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta, Faisalabad and Multan become choice destinations for the wealthier classes in search of better services – primarily health and education. At the same time, small towns and villages are being hollowed out by this outmigration.
One consequence of the silent consumerist revolution is the increasing concentration of the state’s services in parts of urban Pakistan that cater to the middle and upper-middle classes. Sprawling housing societies and automobile-dependent urban design are ushering in landscapes that are distinctly hostile to pedestrians or bicycle users – that is, to working-class needs. Furthermore, middle-class residential enclaves tend to appropriate disproportionate amounts of land and water resources in Pakistani cities, leaving 60-80 per cent of working-class citizens in unregulated informal settlements with marginal or no access to urban amenities. Indeed, 80 per cent of the new housing stock in Pakistan is affordable to no more than 1 per cent of the urban population. Pakistani security state-sponsored real estate development is at the forefront of this phenomenon.
Another consequence of the rise of the middle class is the emergence of electronic media. At the last count, there were 103 television channels in the country, almost half of them devoted to 24-hour news. Of all the channels, not one broadcasts children’s programmes in any of the languages spoken in Pakistan. Only two channels cater to children at all, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network Pakistan, but those have almost entirely Western programming.
Cultural Wars And The Security State
Electronic media in Pakistan has emerged as a stalwart of socially conservative discourse. As the renowned progressive female writer, Haseena Moin lamented, ‘It took me decades to build the progressive independent Pakistani woman character in my dramas, and the new commercial media has replaced it with the traditional women victims within months.’
The tenor of the Pakistani news channels is largely anti-financial corruption, with a generally fawning attitude towards the security state. Speaking of moral corruption with the Pakistani middle class will only draw blank looks. The same media also maintains a deafening silence, in the face of any state persecution of ethnic or religious minorities. Furthermore, any foundational critique of Pakistan’s foreign or security policy is off-limits.