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Road laga hay (“The road is occupied”)

By Mohammed Amer – During my recent visit I saw rapid changes in Rawalpindi – a garrison city and headquarters of Pakistan’s military, which both revealed an expansion of the military’s influence and its increased vulnerability, affecting the collective psyche of the people.

In Rawalpindi I was staying in a lower working class neighborhood near Saddar, or Cantonment, which sits alongside an important road that links the city centre with the airport. That same road leads to the adjoining city Islamabad and it is therefore frequently used by military generals, politicians and visiting officials to Pakistan. In the last five to six years the road has been totally transformed and now hosts flyovers, overhead bridges and service roads. These transformations are related to and a consequence of the so-called ‘war against terror’ and impacts upon the daily life of the people living in its surroundings in specific ways.

Central to these transformations and impacts is the event I witnessed and refer to here as ‘road laga hay’, or ‘the road is occupied’. About fifteen minutes before the ‘occupation’ of the road, a military van with a blaring siren sped along the road and a uniformed soldier could be seen waving a red flag and instructing everybody to vacate the road. Seconds later, military personnel carrying guns were at the scene, occupying different parts of the road and crossings, asking all the passersby and drivers to leave the road within fifteen minutes. The entire road was then cleared and armed personnel were stationed at all crossroad corners and junctions. The occupation prevented all access and movement towards the main road and remained so until the high ranking Pakistani officials and their vehicles had passed along the road. This is a frequent occurring daily event, which many local residents living along or relying on the road have had to accept and adapt to. The impacts and effects of such daily road occupations were most significant in the neighborhood where I stayed. This neighborhood near Saddar is a lower working class area, with many small streets and alleys, and houses are often small, and either owned or rented by mainly non-contractual laborers and low ranking government servants. If you want to rent an apartment in the neighborhood, you are obliged to show your national ID card at the local police station, which already illustrates the authorities’ wariness, and the shopkeepers who have established their businesses along the road are often asked by the armed soldiers to close their businesses when the road is ‘occupied’. It is perhaps the vulnerability of the road and the demography of the neighborhood that make military personnel suspicious of potential security threats, which in turn leads to such extensive security measures.

A wounded city
Strict security measures are arguably a consequence of a number of bomb blasts and militant attacks in the area over the last ten years. There were two bomb attacks waged against the entourage of the former ruler General Musharraf as it passed along the outskirts of this neighborhood.[1] Another major blow for the military was an attack and subsequent siege on its headquarters[2] in 2009. All of these attacks, involving mostly military institutes and personnel located in the area, resulted in high numbers of casualties. Often, new roads, squares and various military housing schemes are named after the soldiers and officers killed during bomb attacks or those killed during military actions in the areas bordering Afghanistan. Indeed, a casual traveler will see road signs carrying names which often end with shaheed, or ‘martyr’, as a consequence of the present day conflict. These semantic and visual impressions are further extended by other attempts at sanctifying and sacralizing the road. All along the road, from the airport to Saddar, the lamp posts are inscribed with one of the ‘99 names of Allah’[3], written in Arabic and with Urdu translation. It is an opportunity for a frequent visitor to learn these name by heart in the course of his/her journeys. Yet, besides these memorizing exercises, such sacralization attempts are also intended to create and reinforce a collective truth about being a particular kind of Muslim – one who is against the militant jihadis in the ongoing ‘war against terrorism’.

The mundane interests
This inscription and sacralization of space runs alongside the mundane happenings also. In the last decade, Rawalpindi, along with other major cities in Pakistan, has witnessed a mushrooming growth of military housing schemes[4]. The outskirts of Rawalpindi are now dominated by military coordinated investments in real estate, creating new clusters of gated suburbs within the city. Such gated suburbs are predominantly occupied by retired service personnel, an emerging middle class and overseas absentee residents. Besides providing security to these gated communities, the military initiated a network of security agencies in the urban areas providing protection to private institutes, businesses and foreign dignitaries, something that also served to create jobs for retired personnel. The state of political and social unrest and resulting securitization of Pakistan also lead toa boom in new business opportunities. There has been then an increasing militarization of the city which results from the fact that military services have always been a major source of employment in the area. Rawalpindi, and the adjoining three districts, provide more than 50% of the total of soldiers needed for the Pakistani military – a tradition that goes back to colonial times. Many of my cousins resident in the area have also served in the military, in one way or another. With the increasing investments of the military in oil, agriculture and the financial sector – and thus converting itself into an ‘enterprising army’[5] – more civil personnel are now incorporated into affiliated military institutions. This transformation of the military has arguably also affected the way ordinary people understand and relate to the military. For example, it is now a truism that if you lose your mobile phone, it is possible to trace and get it back if you have a good friend working within the ISI, the intelligence branch of the military. Considering this dominant economic and social position of the military, it is perhaps not that suprising that in response to criticisms against the Pakistani army in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s murder, the first pro-military demonstrations were held in Rawalpindi. The Pakistani military is sometimes called the ‘state within a state’[6], because it plays a complex and ambiguous role within Pakistani society. The military provides a livelihood for the people, but under the present circumstances of violence, insecurity and terror, it also provides a symbolic justification for violence, by simultaneously redrawing the spatial surroundings and invoking an umbrella of sacredness, that enters the cultural sphere of people.

M. Amer Morgahi is finishing his PhD at the SCA department at VU University. He is interested about Islam in Europe, multicultural issues, Pakistan and Pakistani migrants in Europe. Read also his earlier posts on the war against terror, politics of names and 60 kilometers from bin Laden.

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