Pakistan's Crises Sowing Seeds of Class Struggle

During my visit to Pakistan last year, I saw first hand and wrote a post on this blog about how the upper and middle class urban Pakistanis are coping with growing crises of education, electricity, gas, water, and security. For example, I talked about a friend who is doing well selling small power generators and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) for homes in Karachi. I also saw significant proliferation of private security companies, private schools, private water delivery businesses, and private clubs. Instead of helping improve the situation for all of their fellow citizens, it was clear that the Pakistani elite are retreating into their own bubbles to isolate themselves from the terrible effects of deteriorating governance in their land. This growing class divide is enhancing opportunities for Taliban and other insurgents to exploits class rifts in Pakistan.

Now I am sharing with you an interesting take on the situation in the following guest post by a Lahore-based freelance writer Mr. Zaair Hussain:

A Pakistani comedian once remarked that the country’s elite were cloistering into ever-smaller bubbles. Like all good humor, the comment provoked reflection long after laughter had faded.

To recognize our bubble is to recognize how we view those outside; from within those curved lenses, all without is distorted and alien. Even the best-meaning of us will crush the laborer in with the farmer, the beggar with the shopkeeper, the postman with the servant. We affix upon “the masses” a homogeneous mask, stripping them of their humanity. So ingrained is this habit, writing around that phrase was a painstaking task.

We dismiss them and they, for their part, resent us. They see us born into bubbles that rise effortlessly, for that is the nature of bubbles, and begrudge our sneering misconception that we rise because of some inner greatness. If you, sir or madam, were on the ground looking skywards, would you not pray with wicked delight for a sharp, terrible pop?

How has this schism become so advanced that the well-heeled have become aliens in their own land, by their own hand?

There are many culprits, but few so guilty as language.

The language of power and the language of the people are profoundly divided, just as when greater India was the jewel in the colonial crown. Pakistan has no monopoly on class divides and inequality. But in, say, England, the reduced and the royal alike hear the same speeches, can read the same poets, can engage in the same ideas. Closer to home, Iran and Bangladesh can boast the same.

Our schools, conversely, have failed us in language. No one poor in English, or poor in Urdu, has been greatly improved. The indigenous literature that was once the fierce pride of mailmen and mayors alike has evaporated to a curiosity, a hobby of the eccentric. We have lost Ghalib, and we never truly had Shakespeare. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

I do not cast aspersion upon English; its versatility is unmatched, its literature rich. But we have unwisely decided to medicate our colonial hangover with a perverse mixture of an inferiority and superiority complex. Both are unfounded.

We have come to imagine that someone not educated in ‘proper’ English medium schools (like Dr Abdus Salam) is a prima facie simpleton.

The prime symptom is our obsession with the ‘correct’ accent. Woe unto those whose inflections are imperfect; their qualities will be lost to this pettiest of failings. When people launch into vicious mockery at a self-made actress’s pronunciation of “photographer” or “eyes”, they are spearheading a grotesque defense against what they see as a crack in their bubble.

The plummeting standards of local universities have deepened the divide; elite parents have pulled their progeny from Pakistani higher education institutions with all the deliberate subtlety of an 18th century dentist. Where once we were likely to remember the less privileged as our talented classmates, they are now absent from our worldview, labourers outside the glass divide, shadows without substance. In the halls of ideas, we have bid our adieus.

The state must shoulder a goodly share of the blame for our alienation. When we were snatched into darkness, we bought our own light. When we were left parched, we opened our wallets to private water that sprung up like costly oases in the desert. Left in fear, we hired and armed our own security. If the roads crack and fail, we will buy All-Terrain Vehicles. If legal justice fails us, we too will turn to the jirgas that spring up in every void left by the law like mushrooms in the dark places of the world. Things fall apart. And what then? A thousand, a hundred thousand self-important and insignificant micro-states will burst from the corpse of the old, and our alienation will be complete and irrevocable.

In our fear and frustration, we have created a false Eden and set before it an angel with a golden sword. Our homes, our offices, restaurants and retreats, clubs and celebrations. We protect these with a frenzied passion, and the password is always money. Great energy is expended jostling inwards, deeper into the bubble, until the world proper disappears from our senses altogether. We shuttle ourselves to and fro in smaller bubbles, our windows rolled all the way up. We live in a man-made chrysalis (chrysos = from gold) in which butterflies are formed, but never emerge. The center cannot hold. This, the third and final line I purloin from Yeats’ masterpiece ‘The Second Coming’ applies here save for this: we barely have a center to speak of, merely two peripheries in accelerating retreat, connected only by a rickety bridge creaking ominously in the wind. Soon that frail structure shall sigh its last and the two groups, needing each other desperately, will be left exchanging suspicious glances across a pitiless void.

But we are not yet beyond hope. The spiritual muscle that unites us in camaraderie has grown weak, but is not yet vestigial. When the ground opened beneath our feet in 2005 and hell itself seemed poised to break what it had not already swallowed, the men and women of Pakistan came forth in an effort that must have moved the most cynical of hearts. With their sinews and wallets, however great or small, they came to the aid of their countrymen.

Is it the reason we so cherish our cricket victories? When we cheer as one nation, we are for a fleeting moment linked to the mass of humanity that we otherwise reject, ignore or exclude.

It is not charity I advocate. Our compassion is ours to give or withhold. What everyone is entitled to is kinship, our acknowledgment that we and they are cut from the same mysterious cloth. Without kinship, wealthy and impoverished alike are beggared.

At the least, let us lobby for our sports, our arts, our culture (whether traditional pottery or desi rock). All persons, whatever else they lack, have souls that can swell and fall in unison. That which grew weary in isolation can revive itself in commonality, in knowing the full, true scope of experience that lies just beyond reach.

Let us refuse to accept that our best schools are incapable of teaching us our own language; they have taught us so much, so well. They must teach us how to speak so we can be heard, write so we can be read.

Let us tear away some morsels to fund our universities. We deserve it. Not we, the elite, but we, the people. We deserve to engage intellectually with the best our country has to offer. Let us feud and bicker our college years away, attacking ideas rather than accents, and come away enriched.

Let us sit on the patio of caf├ęs and watch the world go by. Walk when we can and be jostled and irritated and marvel at the textures of life we too often handle with gloves that are velvet on the inside and iron on the outside. Demand and embrace parks and libraries and other public places until we become, once more, members of the public.

Only when our bubbles seem less like palaces and more like prisons shall we escape them.

Zaair Hussain is a Lahore-based freelance writer. He can be reached at

Related Links:

Eleven Days in Karachi

Jinnah's Pakistan Booms Amidst Doom and Gloom

Incompetence Worse Than Corruption

Creative Financing of Pakistan's Energy Projects

Pakistan's Energy Crisis

Light Candles, Do Not Curse Darkness

Taliban Exploiting Class Rifts in Pakistan

Water Scarcity in Pakistan

Salman Ahmed Rocks Silicon Valley

Life Goes On in Pakistan

Pakistan's Higher Education Reform


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