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Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Tunisia and Kashmir

I think we are still 200 years behind this country, on many counts.

A small country in North Africa with a population of about 10.5 million people - hugging the mediterranean coast and with it's fair share of colonial history, opined by many of it's inhabitants to be an 'open prison' - has defiantly opposed the state and altered the balance of power in their favour. An event of injustice that sparked the public uprising on December the 17th in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, culminated in 78 deaths with a further 94 injured (according to official figures) over the next 27 days and a tangible prize of uprooting their autocratic ruler of 23 years, namely President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. In a striking resemblance to the Shah of Iran's ouster in 1979 and the consequent refusal of the U.S. to 'harbour' him, Ben Ali's primary 'benefactor' France closed their doors to him last Friday (14th of January), forcing him to flee to Saudi Arabia instead.

The events of this preceding month, perhaps more than any hitherto, confirms the applicability of communications technology to facilitate participatory inter-connectivity in a stifling political structure and create much-thirsted for - civil space. Could globalisation now be defined as much an exporter of dissent as the fruit of the market economy? Many similar questions and propositions feature on cyber-chatter. Indeed, a rapidly emerging global civil society may render the current geo-political structure of the world as too ugly to bear and too archaic to deliver.

It is clear that the power structure in Tunisia has been circumvented. The task of this piece is to compare some of the ills that have afflicted Tunisia and Kashmir (with a particular emphasis on Pakistani-administered Kashmir) and try to understand how the Tunisians have combusted for change whilst many Kashmiris, despite living under similar restrictions and afflicted with a similar political structure (at least in some respects) still remain largely nonplussed about their future.

If one were to analyse the determinant factors that led to the Tunisian uprising, they would un-arguably be described as chronic unemployment, police brutality and government corruption. Factors which the population of Kashmir – on either side of the Line of Control - is acutely aware of as features of their existence. In AJK, whilst the public struggles to grapple with the concepts of 'policy' and 'issues' with an election looming, their Tunisian counterparts have not limited their democratic prowess to just merely be amongst the counted in a ballot box, they've intensified  the burning desire to engage in direct and innovative methods for their participation in the political process. They've also torn to shreds the fake democratic process that returned Ben Ali to power for the upteenth time two years ago. Votes apparently cast in his favour? A resounding 90%!

Undoubtedly the most seasoned and surviving politician of AJK is Sardar Abdul Qayoom Khan. After a bout of discussions with him in 2006, where this writer repeatedly emphasised on the need for creative space to be 'donated' to the citizens of AJK, he quixotically quipped that it would take five years for that realisation to dawn on the power structure in our territory. His son and current incumbent of the PM's chair Attique Khan, was rather less hopeful in 2008. He thought our population was at least 200 years behind. In a series of conversations with the 'Leader of the opposition' Raja Farooq Haider this previous November, his estimate started from about 60 years and after much cajoling from yours truly by referring to the power of the 'net' to invoke change, he revised his estimate to about 20 years. Meanwhile, many in our population still have a distinct lack of awareness about their potential power. Some think change is impossible, others ridicule the thought. This has prompted many a genuine activist to despair in chorus, “Our people revel in slavery!”

This state of affairs necessitates a quote from the Greek historian Herodotus who opined 2.500 years ago: "No conqueror or despot can last forever in power without the consent of their subjects." His opinion appears to have weathered the storm of time. That is not to suggest that 'people always have the government that they deserve'. There has to be a lag  between the onset of awareness and sharpening of tools required for change. It is not until one physically experiences on a prolonged basis, living under an autocratic leadership in servitude to a militarised structure, whose survival necessitates controlling the levers of power, that one can truly appreciate the challenge for civil society.

Before returning to the similarities between Tunisia and Kashmir, it may be important to note that many a columnist is painting an ominous picture for the Middle East and other such 'Kingdoms' in North Africa, by quoting (apart from the similarities in culture, language and religion) the repression of freedom, high levels of unemployment and tacit approval of those regimes by the 'West'. Clearly a further distinction between Tunisia and certainly 'our' part of Kashmir (viz. AJK) is the high level of education and skills that young Tunisians have; compared to us. For example, they have more than 230 000 job-seekers possessing tertiary education degrees. Their net savviness has caught the attention of the world whilst our graduates still have trouble creating an email address. This can loosely be described as a result of Pakistan concentrating our minds from primary education onwards - on the fearful 'Hindu' enemy across the 'line' - whilst Tunisia, despite being ruled by authoritarian presidents since gaining 'independence' from France in 1956, characterised by zero tolerance for political opposition (Islamist or otherwise), it concentrated on economic and social development – particularly education and women’s rights.

Apart from the above, similarities in problems are almost uncanny in resemblance. For example, mafia family practices, such as the forceful acquisition or expropriation of people’s property is as common here as it is there. The surge in food prices has made the population here as edgy as it has our Tunisian brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, the social costs of our predicament have caused alarm vis a vis Tunisia's mass uprising, particularly when World Bank 'approved' economic growth rates and containment of terror didn't translate into social harmony. In our case, the world is yet to fully understand our social and economic concerns while it harps on the 'War of Terror' in our southwestern midst and continues to defy logic by stressing on a Kashmir solution that ought to be worked out by India and Pakistan.

Tunisia has been considered to be a world leader in surveillance and internet censorship, rivaling North Korea and China. For us, internet access and speed is an issue of more immediate concern. They didn't have institutions functioning as intermediaries between the state and society apart from a massive security apparatus. We could probably compete with them on that score. Being afraid of discussing politics even in private - in light of an abundance of informers - is a familiar refrain in AJK as much as in pre-uprising Tunisia. The associated lack of civil space meant that 'gainful' employment only existed in the Pakistan army or it's associated agencies. The Tunisians suffered a similar lack of choice. Unless of course, they wanted to use their education to co-opt into Tunisia's growth strategy that focussed on low-skill sectors dependent on cheap labour, i.e. textiles and tourism. In AJK, they preferred to dream of reaching the United Kingdom.

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The writer is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 19th of January 2011

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