by Ahmad Rafay Alam
A significant event passed by relatively unnoticed last week when media reported that traders on Lahore’s Hall Road deliberately set alight thousands of pornographic VCDs and DVDs. The Anjuman-e-Tajiran had resolved to weed out the “objectionable” media after vendors in the area reported receiving anonymous letters and phone calls threatening them of dire consequences if the sale of such “obscene” material continued. The event was widely reported, but the obvious undercurrents did not surface. I learnt of the burning when a local TV station carried an interview of a video trader insisting only a handful of the hundreds of outlets at Lahore’s hub of trade in pirated video indulged in selling pornographic material. A study of the undercurrents of this event are quite disturbing.
In the past, the urban elite has sat and heard and read of CD shops in the NWFP and Northern Areas being the targets of bomb blasts. These attacks were explained to be part of the local Taliban’s quest to rid society of corruption and immorality. Because of their twisted and mistaken belief that the pornography the vendors allegedly supply to people is ruining the morals of society, bombing VCD stores has become the local Taliban’s signature method of forwarding a show cause notice to a citizen it feels is breaking a moral code. While these blasts received media attention, urban Pakistanis removed from the civil war that has broken out in our country considered them to be of little significance; an ordinary tragedy in the otherwise violent and tragic life of the ordinary tribal.
Meanwhile, a recent wave of suicide bombs and blasts and bomb scares and hoaxes closer to home – across the city of Lahore in fact – are contributing to a rising sense of insecurity among Lahoris of all class, income and social divides. The Anjuman-e-Tajiran were understandably nervous. With the evidence of Pakistan’s civil war now fast becoming an everyday urban reality, they realized they were on the frontline of the local Taliban’s quest for moral purity. Their burning of thousands of pornographic VCDs and DVDs – a fraction of what is produced and traded, by the way – was also meant as a pre-emptive reply to the local Taliban’s show cause notice. Their message was loud and clear: Don’t bomb us, we are as against immorality as you. Just last week, a blast before a collection of juice shops in Garhi Shahu claimed the life of a young man. That blast was believed to be a message to the owners of the juice stores to cease and desist from allowing young boys and girls to “indulge in immoral acts” on their premises
It’s not for nothing that such a powerful traders association will bend over backwards and stop the sale of pornographic media. Now just about every boy growing up in Lahore knows of the trade in Hall Road’s Zaitoon Plaza and the Anjuman-e-Tajiran has always been a very powerful organization. They have overcome police raiding squads, the local moral police and even crusading intellectual property lawyers many times in the past. But this acquiescence, this formal display of obsequiousness is a real eye-opener. The Anjuman must realize it is impotent against the local Taliban. But in making such obsequiousness, isn’t the Anjuman also giving the local Taliban their first victory? A foothold in their war against immorality?
There may not be bombs at Lahore’s DVD stores. At least not yet. But the Talibanization of Lahore has begun. This is a major development. For centuries, Lahore has been the beacon of culture in this region. It is one of the cities of the Sufi tradition. It was a capital of the Mughal Empire, the seat of the Sikh Khalsa and a jewel of the Colonial Crown. It is the second largest city in Pakistan and, as capital of the Punjab, arguably the most politically significant. Lahore has been the seat of great learning and scholarship. Government College, the University of the Punjab, the National College of Arts, Kinnaird and Aitchison Colleges and, more recently, LUMS, LSE and BNU. It has given the world Kipling, Manto and Professor Abdus Salam and can claim the likes of Ganga Ram, Diyal Singh Majithia and Imran Khan as its sons (yes, Imran Khan – one must never take his gift of the Shaukat Khanum Hospital for granted). It has been home to Faiz and Patras Bokhari and a million other shining lights of Pakistani culture. Now one thinks twice before going out.
If one were to take a map of the River Indus and draw a boundary not two-hundred miles to the West, you’d find most of the areas beyond are now the battlegrounds of the War on Terror. It’s as if anything further away from this modern incarnation of the Indus civilization is being overrun by militancy. This may well be the case, as the settled farmer has no means to resist a hunting–gathering tribal force. Could the Talibanization of Lahore be the beginning of the collapse of the Indus Civilization itself. Usually, when a civilization begins to collapse, the cities on its peripheries begin to collapse. This has been happening in Pakistan since the War on Terror became over after 9/11. First the FATA, then the Northern Areas, Swat and now Taliban forces are reportedly at the outskirts of Peshawar carrying out routine administrative duties as if they ran the place.
The Pakistani state must respond to what is happening. It’s all well to look concerned, as everyone is, but it’s quite another things to have the political and inner strength to do something about it.
In 2001, the National Housing Policy reported there were some 19.3 million housing units in Pakistan. There was a backlog of some four million units and an annual demand of 500,000 homes a year. Based on these figures, one estimates there is a housing shortage of some 7 million units. With an average of 6.6 dwellers per housing unit, more than 40 percent of Pakistan is homeless. This figure is going to go up in the next ten years as our population grows and becomes more urbanized. Lahore itself may wake up in the next decade with some 25 million residents.
The question is what to do with the millions of millions of impressionable young people in our cities today. The income and lifestyle inequalities are more pronounced in our cities. Poor and rich have stopped socializing and there is complete social stratification. The large majority of urban residents live in the most appalling conditions and have to face the worst congestion, air pollution and noise pollution levels in history. There are no recreational facilities. There are hardly enough parks. There are no libraries, no museums, no affordable cafes where citizens can feel at ease and interact. We lack in our cities the very necessary building blocks of civic sense. How can we expect reasonable and enlightened young minds when we are denying them the very air they need to survive.
First published in the NEWS