I arrived in Lahore, Pakistan from Mumbai Sunday night. All flights were operating normally, no matter the state of emergency. On Monday I was driven around Lahore. I saw only bustling shops and bazaars. No closed shops, no drawn shutters.Yet when I stepped back briefly into my international hotel and watched the major western news channels, available only via satellite, all I saw was extremely violent police repression of protesting lawyers. As the day proceeded, the same dynamic repeated itself - a stark disconnect between what I saw on television and my experience of the city's streets. And Lahore was the centre of arrests of lawyers on that day. It is becoming evident that the geography of conflict and repression in Lahore is extremely specialised. It involves only certain spaces and certain groups: lawyers, opposition members and media. And this is all the western media were focused on.
But the critical issue is: will the street rise? That is the concern on Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf right now. My experience of the street in Lahore tells me the answer is no. In its day of greatest violence, Lahore turned out to contain two separate worlds: that of violent repression and a larger, bustling, diffuse world of daily life. A thousand is a lot of arrested lawyers, but it can drown in a city of 7 million, especially when the local media have been closed.
The first time these two worlds intersected in my experience was Monday evening, at the conclusion of an invitation-only talk I was giving at one of Lahore's premier institutions. The prominent lawyer who was to host the post-talk dinner had been taken from his home and arrested only an hour earlier. And three professors who were meant to come had also been arrested.
You would not have known this just by driving back through the city that night. The streets were alive with people. Restaurants were open. Clubs were booming. Nor would you have known this driving through Lahore the next morning, after the most violent day in the city's recent history. We passed the stunningly beautiful old buildings that house the courts and lawyers. Police were standing in front of them, but behind them was only silence, and traffic was moving as if nothing had happened there the day before. Nothing much was happening, of course, because most lawyers were in prison - in this context the equivalent of being disappeared. Their arrests had barely left a trace on the city. It felt that way also when I got to the university to give another talk, this time a public one. There an overflow audience moved to a video-linked separate room. The event lasted over three hours.
But at the lunch, there was another intersection of the two worlds inhabiting Lahore these days. One of the members of the audience was talking with me about the urban and globalisation issues of the lecture, and I asked him what he thought about my two-worlds image for Lahore. He blurted out that his father - the head of the political party of the Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader not allowed to return by Gen Musharraf a month ago - had been arrested Saturday night, an hour after the state of emergency was declared.
As the day went on, I attended the opening of an exhibition by a leading Pakistani sculptor - an unforgettable visual experience. And then on to a private meeting with the very powerful governor of Punjab to talk about mass transit and urban economies. Through it all the streets continued to bustle, the traffic remained heavy and the airlines continued to fly according to schedule, as if nothing is happening.
All this in a city that in the past repeatedly was the centre of political confrontations. Tariq Ali was active in the communist movement in the 1960s. In the 1970s Lahore saw raw bloody protests, and the street rose against the popularly elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who rigged the 1976 elections even though he would have won. Lahore's fabric felt the strains of shop shutdowns, accompanied with the traders and lawyers marching in the streets, with much violence. It was Lahore's Indo-Saracenic-styled high court building that saw the first full-scale protest in Pakistan against the March 9 sacking of the supreme court's chief justice by Gen Musharraf.
Prior to partition, Lahore was a bastion of political activity in the Punjab as well. Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and other leaders came to the city to conduct meetings, mobilise influential Punjabis and benefit from its location smack at the centre of the undivided Punjab. A lot of the sites where Nehru and Gandhi held meetings have been conveniently forgotten as part of the selective amnesia project carried out by the state's actors. One such example is the present day decrepit Bradlaugh hall.
Are we moving to a new type of repression? A niche repression, akin to the niche markets that segment consumer power? With niche repression the street will not rise, the traffic will keep flowing, the airlines will keep flying and the shops will keep selling.