Evict & extinguish

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
— George Orwell

ALONG WITH millions of others around the world, Pakistanis took to the streets earlier this month to protest yet another episode of Israeli terror in occupied Palestine. The pressure exerted by those who came out onto the streets, as well as the brave resistance of Palestinians themselves, forced at least a temporary ‘ceasefire’. The daily indignity of occupation continues, but the coming together of conscious peoples beyond caste and creed in support of Palestine offers hope that the dystopic image of the future encapsulated in the above quote by George Orwell may yet be averted.

But hope will remain fleeting if the same peoples with a conscience that speak up for the Palestinian people ignore the mini-Palestines reeling from dispossession and repression in their own countries. Consider, for a moment, what has been happening in Pakistan while the world was watching the pounding of Gaza.

Violent evictions: Many commentators have documented the demolition of homes in Karachi’s Gujjar Nullah area and the juggernaut of Malik Riaz’s Bahria Town on the Karachi-Hyderabad Super Highway. These cases have garnered attention in large part because katchi abadi and village residents are resisting state diktat and the country’s biggest real estate mogul.

Most violent evictions go unreported.

But most violent evictions go unreported, especially where land is acquired for gated housing schemes. Fear of reprisal compels those without political influence to part with their land for nominal compensation. Mean­while, decades of incremental progress incl­u­ding legislation for katchi abadis’ regularisation is being rolled back because giving pro­prietary rights to working class families is now seen as a ‘waste’ of potentially profitable real estate.

Violent evictions are not the fate of residential settlements alone. Every day one comes across video clips on social media of street vendors being violently deprived of their livelihood. Given the huge proportion of the Pakistani labour force engaged in self-employment for subsistence, such evictions are tantamount to economic strangulation.

The dynamics of violent evictions in our urban centres are tied to the brutalisation of ‘remote’ ethnic peripheries. A combination of demographic pressures, mechanisation and state-led dispossession (including war) in the peripheries forces millions into cities where they experience yet more brutalisation.

Repression of dissent: Of the many jarring images during the bombing of Gaza, the destruction of the building housing the offices of *AP* and other international media outlets garnered special attention. Subsequently, AP fired a Jewish reporter for pro-Palestinian activism while at university. More generally, Big Tech firms like Facebook reportedly altered standardised algorithms to minimise circulation of pro-Palestinian content on social media platforms.

To those Pakistanis who have challenged the muzzling of dissent, and suppression of those who represent the Palestinian cause, I ask: what about ongoing attempts to extinguish voices of resistance in Pakistan? Our mainstream media is hollowed out, critical voices victimised in thuggish ways. Journa­lists who dare to speak truth to power are subjected to character assassinations, accused of faking attacks so as to get a fast ticket to asylum abroad.

What is happening today is the culmination of decades of attacks on intellectual and journalistic freedom. We experienced 11 years of Zia’s dictatorship, and post-1988 even ‘democratic’ governments have been unwilling to prevent the establishment from coercing those who dare speak truth to power.

In sum, ours is a regime of dispossession and repression that is certainly not reducible to the settler-colonial project in Palestine, but cannot be divorced from a larger global political economy story of rapacious profiteering and political authoritarianism. Mini Palestines dot the globe, the mot­to of evict and extinguish uniting propertied classes and ruling establishments everywhere.

Meanwhile oppressed peoples are indoctrinated with ideologies to keep them conveniently at loggerheads with one another; take, for example, the recent reigniting of sectarian hatred in Gilgit-Baltistan. On the other hand, those not living in war-torn peripheries, or villages and katchi abadis subject to violent evictions are bought over by tycoons like Malik Riaz who offer dream worlds of material comfort and unending entertainment.

When it comes to Palestine, many choose to put their lot in with the dispossessed and brutalised, thereby buttressing the ranks of dissenters. In principle, we should make the same choice in our own country as well, reb­u­f­­­fing the instant gratification symbolised by Bahria Town and the badges of loyalty conferred by the establishment for toeing the line. Don’t doubt for a second that Orwell’s premonition, if not averted, will apply to all of us.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, May 28th, 2021

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