Lahore is still not safe. Memories of two blasts in February are still fresh in public memory. The first, during a rally, killed at least 13 and the second, at a popular market, killed eight – though the government insists this was a cylinder blast.
It was also here that the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in March 2009, at one of the city’s most popular roundabouts, resulting in Pakistan’s cricket isolation. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the organisation blamed for the attack, still remains a potent force and now vies for space with several other militant organisations in the country.
It is against this backdrop that the final of the Pakistan Super League was held in Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium on March 5. It was a rare occasion, when the various power centres – the army, civilian government, bureaucracy, and the media – worked together to make the Twenty20 cricket event a success.
A five-layer security cover, usually assigned to visiting heads of states, was put in place for the event. This was meant to change the narrative, showcasing that Pakistan and specifically, Lahore, the home of Pakistan Cricket Board, was safe. It was a way for our country to tell the terrorist that the show will go on – that we are resilient people and we will not cow down.
This was reiterated inside the stadium. The pre-match ceremony was a spectacle, with Army paragliders jumping into the ground and performances by popular singers. The symbolism was everywhere. “Pakistan is a safe country” said a placard held up by a spectator. “Welcome back cricket,” read another. Throughout the ceremony, there were references to army officers who had been martyred in this fight against the “terrorists”. At least twice, a song was played in their honour. Then, pop and rock artists such as Ali Azmat, Overload and Ali Zafar took the stage accompanied by a troupe of dancers dressed in white and green, the colours of the Pakistani flag.
Early into the ceremony, there were subtle references to dhamal – the whirling and hypnotic Sufi dance. The dancers on stage, however, would whirl occasionally, without passion, stripping the spirit of dhamal of its ecstasy.
But as the evening progressed, the references became stronger. Farhad Humayun, the singer and drummer for Pakistani rock band Overload, said a few lines in honour of Sufi shrine Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, which was a target of a terror attack on February 17 that killed 83 even as they were participating in the evening dhamal.
The dhol-wala accompanying Humayun began playing a wild drum beat and started doing the dhamal. Singer Ali Azmat sang Lal meri paat, in honour of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Behind him were malangs performing the dhamal.
Even before the match had begun, it was clear that the event was meant to be more than just a tournament’s grand finale.
Power of symbols
This is the power of symbols. They distract, hide and pretend. They control political narratives, steering away from all uncomfortable questions. All states in the world can be accused of using them. The Maharashtra government’s planned Rs 3,600-crore Shivaji memorial off the coast of Mumbai also a symbol. In a multi-ethnic, religious city, this memorial will stand for Maharashtrian chauvinistic nationalism.
In a city that, along with a few of the world’s richest, is also home to a sea of people flirting with the poverty line and many others below it, this symbol of indigenous pride is somehow meant to unite people under the umbrella of state nationalism, separated as they are by their class realities.
India’s strides in the space programme are meant to be a symbol – a way to show that it is a rising global power. On February 15, the country launched 104 satellites into space, setting a new world record. Space programs, more than a curiosity to explore the unknown, are fueled by the primeval need to be recognised by the global community as a super-power.
Earlier, it was just the US and the erstwhile USSR that used this to outdo one another, now India and China are part of the game as well. While millions of Indians still live below poverty-line and hundreds of farmers commit suicides every year because of lack of funds to repay their loans, Indians somehow are supposed to feel better with the knowledge that they are now a world superpower.
The Pakistan State too has a range of symbols. “We will eat grass [if we have to]…but we will get one of our own [atomic bomb],” former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto famously said. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who also held the post in 1998, must have been aware of the economic sanctions that would follow after the successful testing of Pakisan’s nuclear bomb that year, but still went ahead. An imaginary sense of invincibility, of pride in a national symbol, was somehow more important than economic exigencies. Today as Pakistan faces deep economic, political and security crisis, the atomic bomb is the perfect symbol for Pakistan’s future superpower status.
On the other side
At the heart of all these symbols is the most poignant one of all – nationalism. Removed as they are, communities with distinct cultures, traditions, histories and religions are meant to share a sense of camaraderie in vast countries like Pakistan or India. The symbol of nationalism is meant to provide these communities a sense of purpose, a commitment to a common goal.
They are to believe that their individual existence or communal realities are somehow subservient to a larger national purpose. Especially in relatively new countries like Pakistan and India, the artificiality of this claim is bare for everyone to see. The organic connection a people develop with their land, their ancestors have established for several generations, is rendered irrelevant as their national identity becomes paramount. A people hypnotised by the charm of nationalism are easily manipulated by state narratives, which are meant to steer away focus from real political issues.
In India, the recently popularised term “anti-national” has become an easy tool to silence all dissent, highlighting the hypocrisies of the state. Pakistani learned this trick right at its inception – earlier communists were shut down, then Ahmadis and now liberals. The symbol of nationalism, meant to instill pride in a nation even when it perpetuates gross injustices, has now become the most oppressive tool state uses to obscure such realities.
Now that the final of Pakistan Super League was successfully staged in Lahore, and there is hope cricket will return to Pakistan, it could be argued the symbol has achieved its purpose. The State’s failure in allowing two attacks in the city before the grand final has been brushed under the carpet as Pakistan pats itself on the back.
Even as the profiling of Pashtuns continues unabated in Punjab, in a purported attempt to crackdown on terrorism, the voices of resistance against it have been drowned out by the cheers of rejoicing Pakistanis, ecstatic at the return of cricket.
Yes, Pakistan feels much safer now.
Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.