Students’ identity politics and its discontents

Identity politics of the kind that the students of QAU and others practice is in the long run much more prejudicial to the emergence of a progressive Pakistani polity than anything that the right-wing can fabricate

The recent disturbances at the Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) between Baloch and Sindhi student federation councils, are symptomatic of the almost fatal malaise that afflicts Pakistani society and higher education.

The train of events that has brought the premier institution of higher education to stand still, and then in considerable disrepute is well known. The sub-text of the events has the following plot lines: student political consciousness and activism is centred around ethnic identity; students’ main mode of conflict resolution is violence; university’s main mode of conflict resolution and prevention is, student expulsion and security operations; and finally, the attitude of the teaching staff and those in power towards the students is nothing short of colonial.

There was a time when I was quite sympathetic to ethno-nationalist parties in Pakistan for their leftist stance on social issues. But upon considerable reflection, I have concluded that ethno-nationalist politics can be as damaging to a polity and to emancipatory struggles of the weak as right wing fascistic politics. Sadly, too many forward thinking people of conscience in our country have lent their allegiances to ethno-nationalist identity politics.

The bludgeoning to death of any issue based student and popular politics during the 1980s has left an entire generation which can only articulate its progressive ideals and aspirations in the ethnic idiom. They can’t imagine an alternate idiom, and students are no exception. As the eminent Israeli myth-busting historian Sholomo Sand once said, “When identity becomes the basis for living and not its purpose, historiographic change takes place.” He was talking about Israel, and how a confabulated history is put in place to reinforce the identity myths that must form the basis of political life in Israel. In case of Pakistan, the confabulation of historical nonsense, in the interest of an Islamic national identity is well known. What is less well known is the xenophobic nonsense propagated in the name of ethno-nationalist identity politics.

Ethno-nationalist politics can be as damaging to a polity and to emancipatory struggles of the weak as right-wing fascistic politics. Sadly, too many forward thinking people of conscience in our country have lent their allegiances to ethno-nationalist identity politics

Identity politics of the kind that the students of QAU and others practice, is in the long run much more prejudicial to the emergence of a progressive Pakistani polity than anything that the right wing can fabricate. The religious and nationalist right is instantly recognisable and can be struggled against. The ethno-identity politics, however, can form alliances between the exploiter and the exploited under the linguistic or ethnic flag. And it can pit the oppressed against the other poor and the oppressed, because they are of the wrong ethnicity. The misrepresentation of history is not just an affront to the academic subject, but has material consequences for how people negotiate difference and visions for the future. It is little wonder then that, much like the rest of the Pakistani society, the QAU students could only practice violence as a mode of negotiating conflict. An even more terrifying prospect in an already traumatised society.

The other side of the coin is the attitude of the QAU administration and the state. The state itself having foreclosed any avenues for civil debate and progressive issue based politics, only has its security apparatus to manage conflict. And why not, after all the Pakistani state is colonial in its genus. To the QAU administration, students are irrational, primordial colonial subjects, who only understand the language of power and coercion.

A recent article in the pages of this newspaper about the Government College University’s (GCU) administration removal of soaps from hostel bathrooms is a case in point. The GCU administration maintains that students steal soaps, hence they are not entitled to basic hygiene until they mend their ways. The irony that the British used to have similar attitudes towards the natives in colonial times is completely lost upon the GCU administration. The QAU administration too, is not in the business of educating, debating or treating students with any respect. It is in the business of beating them into compliant subjects. The ones who submit to this indoctrination — not education — are rewarded with civil service jobs, so that they can further perpetuate the system. To expel students is an admission of failure. It is an affirmation that a young person smart enough to get into QAU is not worth the effort of educating. Why should the system then, not turn out compliant minions of the administrative mind, instead of critical and creative thinkers?

Identity should be the purpose of life. It is through the acts of living that one recognises the multiplicity of strands of history and geography that make a political subject. It is through life experiences that identity is forged and experienced. Sadly, the young people in Pakistan are left with the ossified categories of ethnic labels as a framework for performing identity. That may be tactically expedient, but strategically it’s a dead end.

 

The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror

Published in Daily Times, October 31st 2017.