Hundreds dead, thousands displaced, homes decimated, dreams quelled. This is not the first or the last time and frankly, those ‘useless’ people are better dead than alive, if they ever were. Floods in Pakistan are indeed a blessing for the hegemonic social classes, benefitting all from the top to the bottom. Those who won’t be benefitted in any way will cease to exist – even better!
Natural disasters are frequent in Pakistan, flooding being the most popular tool of mother nature. The same Indus that has nurtured us since the beginning of history breaks its banks every few years. In the last twelve years, Pakistan has had at least three large-scale flooding events in which approximately thousands have died and millions have been displaced. This time around, the event has been named ‘Monsoon on Steroids‘. The present deluge is surely an environmental catastrophe, sending a message to all on the planet of what is in store. But like all other natural disasters, this one is a social catastrophe as well. Researchers in the past have written profusely on the role of social capital and how natural disasters disproportionately affect marginalized communities. All this is true but natural disasters in Pakistan work on another level, one that is too subtle yet too savage.
Pakistanis live in a state of synthetic nature where life is opportunistic, resilient, and oxymoronic. The rule is simple – bow to the higher, be a lord to the lower. Society has evolved in a way where environmental disasters invariably benefit all those who matter. Social segregation in Pakistan may appear to be multifaceted but in circumstances such as these, it boils down to two – those feeding off and those wiped off by the deluge.
The method starts at the very top. The state apparatus is deeply entrenched in the colonial mindset and the independence of 1947 only resulted in the same skin-colored masters. But the dysfunctional state-citizen relationship continues to survive and natural disasters ensure that it remains unbroken. There is no shortage of scholarship on how Punjab (north and central) dominates Pakistan. As in 2010 and 2011, the power-feeding region remains relatively unharmed by the waters, partly because of better drainage but essentially due to inbuilt systemic bias. The intra-provincial exploitation is as bad if not worse. Floods are not only a financial calamity for the underprivileged, but they also exacerbate their trust in the government and community as a whole, pushing them further on the fringes. State help is based on social positioning, state leaders do what they are best at, that is begging for aid and then tactically using it to decide who deserves to be rescued, never missing a photo op while throwing table scraps at the affectees. Those who get them are forever indebted, those who don’t – they don’t matter.
Pakistan will be back to “normal” in a few months, as happened after the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods. Pakistani society is resilient and in times like this, people come together to help and rebuild, albeit the same old oppressive system. What appears on the surface as altruism is not some aspiration for social justice but concocted beliefs, misplaced emotions, and above all, deep-rooted faith in social hegemony. No wonder why the tax-evading Pakistani nation with 63% of the population being food insecure loves giving charity, it helps reinforce the slave-master bond, wipes off their sins as a less costly alternative to the Mecca pilgrimage, and ensures that the “kammi” (bloody poor) just somehow survive, keeping the door to “Jannat” (Paradise) always open through them. A “Jannat” of the rich, by the rich, for the rich. Have you seen the ubiquitous charity queues throughout the year, especially during Ramadan? The next time you see it, pay attention to the begging hands and to the lord’s countenance. These acts of “kindness” are a power statement, far from any sense of equality that is fundamental to altruism, and are common across all social groups that matter. The present flood will only strengthen these slave-master bonds. Like the previous natural disasters, this too will be a great source of cheap labor, mostly children and women, for the feudal lords and docile domestic servants for the urban upper and middle classes.
In Pakistan, there is a fascinating disparity between the social values that people espouse and the social reality that exists on the ground. In fact, this is something that is true throughout the globe, only in Pakistan this disparity is worse than in most places. Pakistani society is a hodgepodge of rural and urban feudalism, cooked on low flame with perennially paranoid garrisoned state apparatus. The cherry on top is the “mullahs” (clerics). There may be a bunch of sects in Pakistan in perpetual theological conflict but this is where they all unite. Very assiduously have they developed a common ideology where poverty and disasters are God’s punishment, calling for further submissiveness. In other words, more donations and sway to the “mullahs”.
Pakistani society is an apt manifestation of all three tenets of the Social Dominance Theory of Sidanius and Pratto, namely 1) aggregated individual discrimination, 2) aggregated institutional discrimination, and 3) behavioral asymmetry. The third tenet and the Marxist idea of False Consciousness reveal a thought-provoking subtlety of how the underprivileged lose the sense of their material and ideological reality. But there is something more to Pakistan, something ethereal. It does not have a face and fighting it is like punching a specter. A specter that appears as an angel and is no less problematic. It makes the unreal sky (state and state apparatus) lofty and the real earth and its inhabitants lowly. It solves one problem and creates several more. A state where social classes feed off each other but at the same time, preserve each other with all their intellectual and emotional dexterity.
The water will eventually subside; sink into the ground, evaporate into the sky, or find its way to the sea. What will stay is the filth under which the underprivileged will continue to suffocate. Natural disasters will continue to wreak havoc until people are not empowered and made the sculptors of their fate; until social virtue stops thriving off the poor and is indeed altruistic; until the collective consciousness of the society dreams of social justice. Monsoon – the age-old messiah – would truly be a blessing if it brings with it from the skies an aspiration for social justice. All great things begin with a dream and the road to social justice is no different. In MLK’s words, ‘I have a dream …’.
[Photo by Kamran Khan/Pixabay]
*Shiraz Gulraiz is an author, freelance writer, and engineer by profession. He holds a Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.