On the periphery

By AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR - Originally published on DAWN News.

IT is one of the most used and abused ideas in the contemporary world. Just about everyone talks up and even authoritarians are compelled to at least pay lip service to it. Indeed, a healthy dose of rhetoric about it is the minimum requirement for political legitimacy. It is thus that we are said to be living in the ‘age of democracy.’

Much has been written - both in academic and popular realms - about the hollowness of democracy under the aegis of neo-liberalism. The assumption that democracy is best served by a ‘free market’ economy run by ‘good governance’ experts makes mockery of earlier philosophies of emancipation that have inspired so many democratic movements around the world.

But that debate is for another time and place. Here I want to focus on how democracy means something very different in the peripheral regions of the country as compared to the heartlands.

While the rest of the country flirts with local government elections held by a civilian regime, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, the almost invisible people of Gilgit-Baltistan are set to elect representatives to their legislative assembly for only the second time. Election day is this Monday, June 8, and predictably, the electoral exercise has garnered limited coverage in Pakistan’s mainstream press.

One could agree that the relative disinterest reflects only that there are likely to be very few surprises at the polls - it can be reasonably expected that many incumbents will be re-elected and the process of mainstreaming GB will therefore enter its next logical phase with fanfare.

But this story is conspicuous for what it deliberately neglects. One of the major sub-plots in the GB election is the candidacy in constituency GB-6 of a 33-year-old native of Hunza who goes by the name of Baba Jan. Currently in jail, Baba Jan is facing life sentence for supposedly propagating seditious political ideas. As yet not formally a convict, however, his nomination papers were reluctantly accepted by local courts. And as fate would have it, this loophole in the law triggered a popular uprising.

Baba Jan is not being fronted by moneyed interests, the military establishment or one of the region’s royal families. It is being run by thousands of young people who have literally descended onto the Hunza political landscape to the surprise of opponents and supporters alike. Students based in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, having travelled back to their home region, have alongside their peers studying in GB, succeeded in dramatically raising the political temperature in Hunza, and indeed the whole GB region.

It goes without saying that the groundswell of popular support has made Baba Jan’s the most dynamic election campaign in all of GB. Women independently set up election offices and are travelling across the length and breadth of what is a very big constituency. In a region riven by sectarian divisions , Baba Jan has succeeded in transcending religious affiliation and speaking for a diverse people who, share a sense of deep alienation from the state.

Indeed it is telling that a man accused of engaging in anti-state activities has been taken to heart by ordinary people who have hitherto remained largely aloof of established political players in the region. For the record, Baba Jan’s crime is only that he has consistently mobilized for the basic entitlements of the dispossessed. He originally incurred the state’s wrath in 2010 when he led a movement demanding compensation for the victims of Attabad lake disaster,, and has subsequently been the moving force of similar mobilisations.

By victimizing him, the state has confirmed only what the people of GB have known for decades - that anyone who speaks truth to the power is singled out and accused of undermining the sacred ‘ideology of Pakistan’. That the residents of GB continue to deprived of basic constitutional rights; that they a are dismissed as the appendages of the ‘Kashmir problem’; that huge developmental interventions which dramatically affect their lives (the Kashgar – Gwadar Road most recently) are initiated without any meaningful consultation - there are facts life that GB’s long-suffering people are supposed to accept. Baba Jan has chosen not to keep silent like so many others, and his reward is jail.

He is long-shot to win the election because this particular ‘democratic’ procedure is still stacked heavily against those without money and influence. But his campaign has inspired thousands and has undoubtedly unnerved status quo defenders. A state that continues to treat its peripheral regions like colonies will always be worried about the emergence of movements like that of Baba Jan. The men and women of GB have shown us what democracy should like. Now that’s a story in which we should all be interested.

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

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