Across the border

Does Imran Khan’s victory in the Pakistan elections herald the rise of a new Takht-e-Lahore?

Six years since his historic jalsa in the city, Khan has breached the Sharifs’ fortress.

On April 29, in the shadow of the Minar-e-Pakistan, that ultimate symbol of Pakistani nationalism, stood Imran Khan with images of Allama Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the backdrop. Across the park, next to the entrance of the Badshahi Masjid, is the final resting place of Allama Iqbal, the national poet who is believed by many to be the ideological father of Pakistan. Beyond that, deep within the walled city of Lahore, is his haveli, still occupied by members of his family. Even the park – earlier known by various epithets such as Badami Bagh, Parade Ground and Minto Park – is now named Iqbal Park in his honour. While Sialkot was his ancestral home, Lahore became his adopted home.

After a performance by Strings, one of the most famous pop-rock bands in the country, Khan took the stage. Sometime during his speech, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief stopped for a short evening prayer that he performed on stage. This was to be “Naya Pakistan”, modern, liberal, as represented by a hip band like Strings, yet also true to its roots, traditional and religious. In subsequent speeches, Khan would reiterate his dream of modelling the Pakistani state on the state of Medina, in the early years of Islam. On the other hand, he would also express his desire to follow the Scandinavian model, with high taxes and strong welfare.

To be fair to Khan, his vision of the state of Medina is also one with a strong emphasis on welfare. In the run-up to the July 25 elections, in which the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged victorious, Khan’s party manifesto promised a reduction of taxes, which are already at a historical low after the last-minute populist efforts of the previous parliament dominated by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Pakistan has one of the lowest gross domestic product to tax ratios in South Asia and suffers from a massive budget deficit that has been supplanted by loans and aids.

Imran Khan's historic jalsa in Lahore on October 30, 2011, is said to have heralded his arrival on the national scene. (Credit: @PTIofficial / Twitter)
Imran Khan's historic jalsa in Lahore on October 30, 2011, is said to have heralded his arrival on the national scene. (Credit: @PTIofficial / Twitter)

October 30, 2011: The day it all began

On October 30, 2011, thousands of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf flags had swirled in Lahore as Imran Khan addressed his now “historical” jalsa, also at the Minar-e-Pakistan ground. Having boycotted the elections in 2008 and continued his opposition of both the government and the Opposition, alleging they were in cahoots, most political pundits had not taken Khan seriously prior to that mammoth gathering. Since founding the party in 1996, Khan had failed to make a mark on the country’s political landscape. He had come out in support of former president Pervez Musharraf but eventually fallen out with him and supported the 2007 Lawyer’s Movement – against Musharraf’s sacking of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry – that had resulted in the general’s overthrow. By 2011, Khan had begun appearing regularly on private television talk shows but he was far from the powerful leader that he is now.

It was this jalsa in Lahore that heralded the arrival of Imran Khan on the national scene. By some generous estimates, 200,000 people descended on to the city from across the country. Lahore for Imran Khan is his adopted home. He has a house here, attended school here, even began his cricketing years here.

But more importantly, Lahore was also the home of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Since the days of former president Zia-ul-Haq, the party had dominated Lahore and Punjab. In the 2008 elections, it had won 11 out of 13 seats in the city. It was through Lahore that some of the party’s bigwigs had found their way to the national parliament. For its loyalty, the city had been rewarded with underpasses, flyovers, new roads, a metro-bus and now a metro-train. Many detractors of Shehbaz Sharif, currently the chief minister of Punjab and president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), had begun to call him the “mayor of Lahore” and the political dynasty of the Sharifs as “Takht-e-Lahore”, in reference to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa Empire.

Thus, for Imran Khan to organise such a mammoth jalsa in the city was a direct challenge to the hold of the Sharifs. The Pakistan Peoples Party had long been dismantled from Lahore and parts of Punjab. Perhaps, even Imran Khan had not anticipated such a heart-warming response. An unprecedented momentum had been created for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which resulted in an equally successfully jalsa in Karachi on December 25, 2011, the death anniversary of Jinnah. While many were impressed by the party’s extraordinary show of power, there was also speculation of whether it had peaked prematurely. The elections were, after all, still a year and a half away.

A new order in Lahore

These fears came true for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in the 2013 elections. In Lahore, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) secured 12 out of the 13 seats. But not everything went perfectly for the Sharifs’ party. In several seats in Punjab and Lahore, it faced a strong fight from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ticket holders. Going into the elections, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) was aware of the growing popularity of Khan’s party. It was perhaps this fear that led to serious voting violations in two seats in Lahore. These two constituencies, with two others in Punjab, became a bone of contention between the parties following the elections and eventually led to a four-month-long dharna by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 2014.

Lahore thus became a battle ground. It had been the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s fortress all these years and they were desperate to retain it, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf understood the symbolic significance of winning from the city. This year, Khan’s party finally achieved the breakthrough, securing four of the 14 National Assembly seats in the city. The battle for Pakistan is the battle for Punjab, and the battle for Punjab begins in Lahore.

While the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) retained its majority in the province, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, with the help of its allies and independent candidates, that is in a comfortable position to form the government. In many ways, the battle is reminiscent of the one between the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the 1980s and 1990s, when Punjab remained a contested province. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) emerged victorious in that contest, making Lahore and Punjab its fortress. The fortress is now under threat. The party’s stranglehold on Lahore has been loosened and Punjab has been lost (by a slight margin). The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf now finds itself in a unique position. Will it be able to dismantle Takht-e-Lahore or is this a temporary setback for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)? Will we see the rise of a new Takht-e-Lahore with another son of the city now destined to become the prime minister of Pakistan?

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was, is scheduled to be published this month.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.