Trying To Make Sense Of Pakistan

It is difficult for me to talk in public about my personal projects. This is not because they are unduly complicated but because I fear to honestly speak about them and reveal the doubts, uncertainties and many prayers for luck and chance that underpin them. More often than not I do not know what it is that I am exploring, but only that I hope to find something that will educate me, inform me, and in some way, change me. I have questions I begin with, but no clear path to anything that may resemble an answer. These long term works, whether in India and now in Pakistan, are not based on any concrete hypothesis, or agenda, or righteous certainty but are little more than the one man’s rummaging through society, its inhabitants and asking some questions to learn a few things.

Unfortunately, that is not how a photographer is supposed to speak.

Our despair is a result of our lack of a sense of history. You have to understand that we have arrived where we are as a nation as a result of specific historical choices, and understanding the reasons for those choices can help us make the future. It is absolutely crucial to retain this sense of history, and to see Pakistan and Pakistanis as agents of their own history.

Ayesha Jalal speaking at the Lahore Literary Festival, Lahore 2013


Pakistan is pulsating with social and political movements that have no direct electoral vehicle – farmers, factory workers and fisherfolk do not sit idle, waiting to be recruited into the Taliban or into the military. Activists such as Baba Jan Hunzai from Gilgit sit in jail because they threaten the consensus, while the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (led by Mohammad Ali Shah) continues its protests over access to the Puran Dhoro waterway in southern Sindh. Akbar Ali Kamboh, Babar Shafiq Randhawa, Fazal Elahi, Rana Riaz Ahmed Muhammad Aslam Malik and Asghar Ali Ansari languish in jail for their roles in the Faisalabad power-loom workers strike of 2010, while women in Larkana went after officials at the Benazir Income Support Program for their condescension and corruption. None of these people venture into Rashid’s book. This is why the book is suffocating, why Pakistan seems in a hopeless situation. Rashid seems to have lost his faith in the capacity of the Pakistani people to effect change through their struggles.

Vijay Prashad, from a review of Ahmed Rashid’s Pakistan On The Brink

The way in which…the liberal obsession with the ‘Taliban’ feeds into the military’s project of a neoliberal security state is reflected in the proliferation of ‘security talk’, that is, the tendency to couch the very real grievances and issues of the Pakistani people in the language of security, and specifically in terms of combating ‘Islamist militancy’…Needless to say, this equation between deprivation and religious extremism/militancy dehumanizes the poorest and the most vulnerable….

What the liberal discourse reveals is a profound dissociation from – and even a distaste for – ordinary Pakistanis and their lives, hopes, dreams and struggles, reflecting in the abandonment of mass political work…

Saadia Toor , The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics In Pakistan Pluto Press, 2011

When I present this work I find myself under a lot of pressure – from the audience, and from myself, to speak as if I know precisely what I am doing, what I am looking for, and what the trajectory of this project is going to be. For that is how most photographers do speak about their work, using their photographs to offer solid, confident statements about the condition of the world that they documented. Many are quick to arrive at judgements and conclusions, and even quicker to move towards advocating avenues of change. And yet I find myself, particularly during this work in Pakistan, unable to garner such a stance of certainty. And I am glad for it because I am meeting and working alongside some of the bravest, most determined people I have ever come across, and they are – with their words and deeds, changing my entire understanding of the country, and as a result, the entire idea of this project itself. What I am learning is a deeper understanding of the country, and the forces that determine the state of its society.

I have been a frequent critic of Western and Pakistani liberal journalists who tend to see Pakistan as a singular pathology, and in the process erase its political history, bureaucratic legacies and struggles as a participant in global forces such as The Cold War and more recently, the War Against Terror. My work in Pakistan has become a personal dissent against such hack journalism and writing. By stepping away from the map of hysteria typically found in the Pakistani liberal’s living room me into communities, I have been able to step into lives and experiences of the ordinary and marginalized Pakistani where the stories are not about despair, but about struggle, justice and overcoming. It is here, in these forgotten communities, that the real meaning and idea of this project is only now beginning to emerge.

Some of the subjects I am examining now are taking me back into landscapes I first traveled into some ten years ago. The landless peasant movement – the Anjuman-e-Muzareen, was in full flow back in 2001 / 2002 when I first arrived in a small village in Okara to document it. I have to return to my studio in Stockholm to retrieve my original b&w 35mm negatives. That work was shot on a faulty Nikon F3HP – its film back kept opening if you pulled too hard on the cocked shutter!, which now sits on my desk as I write this and is being used as a paper weight. I had returned to these lands in 2008 to document the attempt of the landless to field a political candidate for the Punjab Provincial Assembly in the 2008 elections – Mehr Abdul Sattar nearly toppled the incumbent landlords of these areas losing only by 3000 votes. It was just another example of a people rising up against their overlords and a system of state bureaucracy and military that have dispossessed and deprived them for decades. It remains one of the most important popular movements in Pakistani history, and Abdul Sattar’s run for the Provincial Assembly a crucial milestone in the country’s political history. And yet there is no major work – academic or otherwise that has documented this odyssey and the overwhelming odds these most deprived and weak members of Pakistani society continue to face.

Rafiqui_Pakistan_A_025 (small)

Supporters of Anjuman-e-Mazareen leader Mehr Abdul Sattar at a political rally, Okara, Punjab Copyright Asim Rafiqui 2008

As I travel into these communities, and sit with those who refuse to bow to the dictates of the military, the courts and the state bureaucracy – the three critical frames of the state that have consistently ignored and repressed the larger Pakistani society, I am beginning to understand what justice actually means, and how it is being fought each and every day in the country. The work has evolved from a rather simplistic series of explorations, to a deeper questioning of the gap the lies between the ideas of a just society that are being fought for, and the ideologies of the state that are being implemented through the iron-hand of state bureaucracy and the military. Within this gap lies the state judicial system – largely a puppet to those in power, but today increasingly finding its feet to speak out on behalf of the ordinary Pakistan. And yet still not quite enough.

But I am not arriving at answers, only realizations – about choices made, about goals defined, and about specific ideas that were implemented and how these disadvantaged so many. What I am arriving at is a sense of our history, and the choices we made along the way. And in a strange way as I gather this sense of history within myself – and find that I am further and further away from my journalist colleagues from whom history is mostly an inconvenience, and largely a closing paragraph, I find myself more optimistic about the country and the future that faces it. And this optimism exists only because of the kinds of people I am meeting – not the cynics and tv-addicted drawing room pundits, or celebrity journalists, but ordinary Pakistanis who are struggling to gain their share of justice, rights and resources from a greedy, venal elite, and who retain a remarkably clear and insightful understanding about the reasons for their deprivations. In fact, I have heard more intelligent discussions about the problems of the country in the slums in Karachi than in the class-rooms of Pakistan’s finest academic institutions. Unlike the elite, the poor have nothing to lose and hence nothing to be afraid of.

There is another Pakistan, and it will hopefully emerge on the pages of the Pakistan Justice Project. I recently re-named the work to Seasons of Fiery Roses The struggle for Justice in Pakistan – this is from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz where he referred to the determined citizens of the country as the fiery rose. The full verse, thanks to Saadia Toor, goes like this:

This is the season of passion, yet also of the yoke and noose,

This is the season of repression, yet also of agency and resistance,

The cage may be in your control, but you have no power over,

The season when the fiery rose blossoms in the garden,

So what if we do not live to see it? There will be others who witness,

The season of the flowering garden, of the nightingale’s song.

As always, Faiz combines the traditional iconography if the Urdu ghazal with the powerful social concern of a humanist. It was this that really made his poems stand out as unique, and resonate in the entire region. The change in the name reflects a change in the understanding of the nature of this work. Whereas for a moment I had tried to make it more academic in its tone, I now naturally find myself leaning towards making it more dissenting and supportive of oppositional and resistant ideas to the meaning of justice as sought, and against the rules of justice as imposed.

In the last few weeks I have had the joy of immersing myself in some books that have offered important insights into the historical trajectory of the nation, and the structural (state, bureaucratic, political and economic) factors that have bought us to this moment in history. With the recently completed elections, and the return of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Noon (PLM-N) to the table of power, it has been a poignant moment to understand the factors that determine Pakistan modernity as a political economy of defense.

Saadia Toor’s powerful and insightful work The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan has proven to be an inspiration, and a welcome relief from the tiresome books that are constantly proclaiming Pakistan to be on the brink of something or the other. This work is an antidote to the dozens of run-of-the-mill books typically found on the bookshelves of the lobotomized Pakistani elite screaming about Pakistan being on the brink of something or the other. Her calm, measured prose, and her incisive analysis of left, popular movements in Pakistan, and their systemic repression and erasure in the service of the Cold War, bring a healthy corrective to those screaming Islamic hysteria.


Toor’s book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand Pakistan as a contested space, and where millions are fighting against forces – bureaucratic and military, that have for too long undermined the need for meaningful democracy, investment in human and social welfare, and devolution of powers to those who must deal with its consequences.

Ayesha Jalal’s early work Democracy & Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and historical perspective provides an important look at the structural reasons for the emergence of (largely) democratic structures in India, and (largely) authoritarian structures in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Rather than hide behind brainless essentialist arguments, Jalal attempts to understand the institutional legacies of the colonial regime, and how modern economic, and geo-political factors, utilized them to varying degrees, and the kinds of states that emerged.


This is the kind of work that every reporter trying to understand Pakistan should read. Though I can’t help but think that they do not. In a recent criticism of the New York Times reporter Declan Walsh, I had screamed that:

…one of the great tragedies of modern journalism is its forgetfulness – this is structural, but it is also to a large degree, ignorance. and nations like Pakistan are never forgiven their history, their choices, but always written about as freakish, artificial, corrupt, broken, failed and all that (which they are), but with an inevitability that reeks of reductive ideas and judgements. There is no sense of history. for example: and this will piss off particularly the Pakistani liberal class, but the rise of Islamic fundamentalists, and sectarians was part and parcel of Pakistan’s pact with the American anti-communism fight in the 1950s…Our pathologies, our failures, our corruption, our poverty, has roots in decisions, and in history. But to write about any country, let alone Pakistan, in this fashion is to disconnect it from history, and to present it on a pedestal as a unique, and freakish failure. It is to sow hopelessness and despair, but I am sure you will agree, is what most of us suffer from. Can the journalism format incorporate all this history? I think it can…Most all these [journalistic] writers, including the now much celebrated, martyred, Declan, write by looking out through very small windows…[and] they remain deaf and dumb i.e can’t speak our languages, and largely uninterested…in our actual history – not journalism tracts, but our actual continuities and legacies post-colonial, post-independence etc. They lack a perspective about the real world political, and cultural struggles of the people that has landed us here.

Declan was kind enough to respond to my clearly frustrated comments in a rather gentlemanly manner and simply said that the above was …a very interesting and sharp critique. But the frustration comes from watching the country being reduced by journalists, pundits, talking heads and state politicians to a caricature, while its citizens and their genuine efforts at reform and change, ignored at the behest of some imperialist agenda or the next. Pakistan’s capitulation to the priorities and directions of a largely American world view began within months of its independence, and its bureaucratic and military elite continues to surrender their agenda, ideas, ideals and aspirations to those that they receive in their mailbox send directly from Washington D.C. The paranoid, security obsessed state of affairs not only serves the paranoid world-view of the Pakistani elite, but it plays right into the hands of a neoliberal class that has little or no interest in the social concerns of the ordinary Pakistani. The fear of the Islamic bogeyman veils the fear of the need to give the ordinary Pakistani his due. This is not anti-Americanism, as so many lame pundits like to argue, but a realistic assessment of the close collaboration between certain sectors and elements of the two states. There is no ‘us’ or ‘them’.

The degree to which the Pakistani military fleeces the state is captured excellently in Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc. – this book has actually given me an idea for a new photo project though I am not quite sure I will be able to pull it off. But I am working on the details now. Regardless, this is the same Pakistani military that continues to siphon off the largest percentage of state funds, and continues to receive tens of millions in direct military aid from the USA.


In a review of the book in the New York Times by Stephen Kotkin, pointed out:

Post-independence expansion of Milbus (Military-Businesses) occurred most prominently via welfare foundations, under the guise of providing for the needs of the troops and their families, whether with bakeries or beauty parlors. In addition, land grants, pensions five times the civilian level and post-retirement jobs — “the most significant group involved in Milbus are retired personnel” — were designed to make service attractive. But Ms. Siddiqa writes that “out of the 46 housing schemes directly built by the armed forces, none is for ordinary soldiers.” Milbus acts like an upward funnel.

Milbus justifies its commercial empire by disparaging civilians as incompetent and corrupt and insisting that the military alone promote national development. Just such a developmental apology for Pakistan’s military rule was echoed in American academic and policy circles throughout the cold war.

To refute these claims, which endure among Pakistan’s officer corps, Ms. Siddiqa tallies the bailouts for military-run businesses. When Milbus earns profits, Ms. Siddiqa writes, they often derive from insider access to resources and contracts. A number of top military companies, she shows, were granted outright monopolies, which wiped out competitive civilian companies. Milbus displays all the inefficiencies of crony capitalism, worsened by the military hierarchy.

And it also explains much about the current ‘dedication’ to the ‘War Against Terror’ – a commitment that emerged in the midst of yet another unconstitutional military overthrow of a civilian government. Just as in 1979, when Zia’s tottering regime was ‘saved’ by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Musharraf’s hideous attempts at legitimate power via illegitimate means, was ‘saved’ by the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. In both instances, two unpopular, resisted regimes were entrenched by American aid, and political largess, to serve the greater purpose of American empire. But perhaps what the books help us see are the tentacles of the military into the economic structures of the country, and how these determine and define economic, social welfare, political and geo-strategic policies. Most importantly, how an institution that retains its deep colonial era ambivalence if not outright disdain for the civilian, continues to undermine the country’ economic and democratic possibilities.

Away from the now tiresome hysteria of the Ahmed Rashid’s and others like him who find financial and political clout in mouthing predictions of the demise and destruction of the Pakistani state, the arrival of the Taliban at the ‘gates’ of Islamabad and other such nonsense, are the other stories that most people seem not to hear or know about. These stories ‘speak upwards’ i.e they are trenchant critiques of Pakistani structures and institutions of power, and they challenge these for their venal exploitation, indifference and oppression.  These are the ordinary stories, of ordinary people, who show a deep commitment to a secular, worldly idea of life and living. And who are engaged in their daily lives for their rights, and their dignity as citizens of this country. These are the small stories which may lack the glamor and populism of ‘radical Islam’, or ‘nuclear threat’, but are actually what the bureaucracy and military elite of this country really fear – social justice, social equality, and full judicial and political rights. The bogeyman of ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘Taliban’ continues to muffle the voices of the ordinary Pakistani man and woman who has repeatedly only ever raised their voices demanding economic and social equality.

The work in Pakistan moves ahead on the basis of doubt, uncertainty, confusion and questioning. I would never have it any other way. At the conclusion what will emerge are small stories of what many think are small lives. And yet, these small stories contain within them the real issues of justice that need to be faced and understood. They contain the real stories of what drives Pakistan, and where its future possibilities may lie.

Comments are disabled for this post