Will Pakistan’s ‘Nazuk Mor’ Ever End?

Faiq Zafar writes in Dawn:
April 14, 1919. The sun rose on an India gashed and mutilated by a horrific display of brutality, the likes of which she had seldom seen before. In Amritsar, more than 1,500 unarmed civilians — gathered at the Jalianwala Bagh to partake in the cultural festivities of Vaisakhi a day before — had met the unbridled wrath of the Raj.

The sheer callousness of the British military drew ire from even the most stone-hearted quarters. Even Churchill — for whom committing genocidal atrocities was like a regular Tuesday — was hesitant to lend his name to the bestiality that was the Amritsar Massacre.

A little north of seven months after the incident, General Reginald Dyer, the officer who commandeered the violence, was called in to testify before the Hunter Commission. The following is an extract from his harrowing account:

“I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed, and I consider this is the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce if I was to justify my action. It was no longer a question of merely dispersing the crowd, but one of producing a sufficient moral effect from a military point of view not only on those present, but more especially, throughout the Punjab. There could be no question of undue severity.”

A century later, it is still interesting to contemplate the threat less than a couple thousand unarmed protesters presented to the all-mighty British Empire for Dyer to feel compelled into such extremities. Interesting still is that according to Dyer, the purpose of the violence went far beyond the corporeal elements of the gathering.

Legal historian Nasser Hussain expounds that the relationship between legal and extralegal violence used to frequently collapse in colonies in order to devise a permanent state of emergency. This peculiar situation would arise at the behest of an intrinsic sense of paranoia amongst elite echelons of the Raj, who feared that popular dissent could escalate into an open mutiny against the Crown as it did in 1857, leaving bare the fragility at the heart of colonial terror.

Reinforcing the political frameworks of the Raj was an elaborate substructure of historical and cultural violence, carefully manufactured and meted out over the course of a century. As anti-colonial sentiment peaked across the subcontinent, the foundational myths — upon which the Empire carried out its social and economic plunders — had begun to give way. And so when Dyer entered the gates of the Jallianwala Bagh that evening, he sought not only to defend the political authority of the Raj, but in his own words, the ‘moral’ and ideological writ of the Empire as well.

Generational fallacies

To dismiss the disgraced general’s anxieties as a one-off enterprise by a colonizing regime desperate to sustain a dying empire is to miss the forest for the trees. In post-colonial Pakistan for instance, independence from British rule did little to uproot the colonial structures of governance. The new nation-state not only inherited the Empire’s railway systems and ornate stone buildings, but her paranoiac behaviors too.

The phenomenon of a khaki-laden General speaking directly into a television camera to utter the ominous words, “Mulk ek nazuk mor se guzar raha hai” (The nation is going through a difficult turn) is one that hits a little too close to home for every Pakistani. Once the nazuk mor is established, a state of emergency ensues in which the military is granted unimaginable concessions. From wide-scale operations across cities to military courts for civilians, from massive cuts in the annual budget to policing speech on social media — on Pakistan’s “nazuk mor”, the state can do no wrong. After all, desperate times often call for desperate measures.

As we stand in the aftermath of the May 9 protests, we can clearly trace the ideological dimensions of Dyer’s actions that evening play out in real time. At the time of writing, one of Pakistan’s largest political parties remains largely decapacitated. Scores of its supporters await trials in military courts — See: Can the military dispense justice — while much of its top leadership faces a myriad of court cases (which seem to mysteriously vanish after the accused announce their resignations from the party). Journalists and activists hounded by unidentified men are all but a common sight on one’s social media feed. The country seems to have back-pedalled into a time best described by Faiz Ahmed Faiz during his incarceration in Hyderabad in 1951:

My salutations to thy sacred streets, O beloved nation!

Wherein a peculiar tradition has emerged- that none shall walk with his head held high,

Lest one walks in devotion to thee, they must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in fear

Hardly two months prior, the situation was much different. The PTI chief’s onslaught against the military establishment was beginning to draw first blood. Formerly the face of the same-page mantra, Imran Khan’s firebrand of populist rhetoric, coupled with his domination of social media and strong political footprint in the establishment’s legacy stronghold, Punjab, had carved an obvious split in what was hitherto the country’s most organized institution.

Forced into uncomfortable press conferences and startling admissions, it seemed the establishment had no idea how to deal with the Imran threat, mumbling and stumbling into a defensive position they had not occupied perhaps since Benazir Bhutto’s massive election victory in 1988. Optimists among the lot saw the ex-prime minister’s offensive against the powers-that-be as some kind of groundbreaking exposé, maybe even the genesis of a possible revolution. It didn’t take long for the military to prove them wrong.

In December 2022, Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, in an address at the Pakistan Naval Academy in Karachi, dusted off the age-old playbook:

“Pakistan is passing through one of her most critical junctures and this requires development of national consensus by all stakeholders to sail through the confronted challenges of economy and terrorism.”

Once the narrative of the ‘nazuk mor’ had been swung into play, the PTI’s political dominance was but a house of cards, just waiting to disintegrate.

But the pertinent question still remains — how did the PTI’s narrative collapse so quickly and so remarkably? To attribute it simply to Imran’s political miscalculations (which, granted, were more than a few) is to operate within the same misapprehensions as the PTI chief himself — that the establishment’s influence in Pakistan is purely and absolutely political and hence, can be mitigated through political action alone. In Pakistan’s circular history, the PTI is hardly the first to pursue this line and fall, something the PPP of the 1980s, the MQM of the 1990s, and the PML-N of the early 2000s would wholeheartedly attest to. It would hardly surprise French Philosopher Louis Althusser who posited:

“No class can hold state power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the state’s ideological apparatuses”

Not much unlike its European predecessor, Pakistan’s military establishment is also a fundamentally ideological enterprise, one that frequently calls upon the trope of a perpetual ‘nazuk mor’ to reassert its relevance in the country’s political landscape.

What the PTI chief did not anticipate was that to palliate the political role of the military without engaging with the ideological underpinnings that perpetuate such a role in the first place is a fundamental logical fallacy. It would be akin to treating a patient diagnosed with malaria by handing them a handkerchief for the night sweats.

The chronicles of two Pakistans

Even if we were to concede, however, that the deep-state is a fundamentally ideological apparatus, it hardly explains how success in the ideological realm translates into policy infrastructure in the material. More here.