The royal visit to Pakistan, in context
The deep historical context and timeframe within which the visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton took place this week, has meant a lot for Pakistan. The country has been through one of the most painful patches of its history, facing an existential threat to its identity, harmony and integrity from the Taliban group. The American narrative of the war on terror, after it didn’t lead to expected gains against Afghan insurgent groups, found its convenient scapegoat in Pakistan, and the country was blamed for ‘not doing enough’ as an ally and repeatedly accused of providing ‘safe havens’ for militants.
As a result, the image of Pakistan suffered a great deal internationally, isolating it from the mainstream of the globalised world. Even the cricket playing nations found the country too unsafe to pay reciprocal visits and Pakistan has been forced to host its home cricket matches in other countries in the Gulf.
Against this background, the royals’ visit has served the great purpose of rebranding and rebuilding Pakistan’s image as a safe and secure country. Pakistan, and the government of Imran Khan in particular, owes a deep gratitude to the royal couple for demonstrating to the West and the world at large that normalcy has returned to the South Asian country of 208 million people.
In recent months, foreign and domestic tourists have again begun visiting the historic and scenic regions of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan in the country’s north in unprecedented numbers, after a dry spell that lasted almost two decades. In fact, last summer, local facilities and tourism infrastructure simply couldn’t cope with the crowd. The five day long royal visit, which included a trip to Chitral now puts a seal of approval on the region’s tourism just when Pakistan needed it to further rehabilitate its image as a home of unexplored wonders.
We cannot ignore other voices that portray the visit in a very different light, and indulge in unending debate about Pakistanis’ ‘colonial complex’ and the country’s infatuation with members of the same family that reigned over a long, bloody and humiliating colonial period, only two generations ago.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
In Chitral, the couple made a point of visiting the homeland of the Kalasha community, known for their colourful clothing, their splendid landscape and traditional dances. It portrayed a cultural diversity that is unfortunately unknown to a vast majority of tourists. Their media team showed off the diversity of the multi-cultural country, large parts of which remain unaffected by today’s consumer culture. Consistently, Pakistan has failed to highlight this rustic, raw, unexplored landscape and its indigenous communities to the rest of the world, and there is no doubt that the extent of international media coverage that followed the royals around on their Pakistan trip will do the trick, at least in large part.
Besides celebrating and presenting Pakistani culture, the royals highlighted some of the significant challenges that Pakistan and the rest of the world faces. Chief among them on their agenda was climate change, respect for nature and education. The first of their social events was their visit to a local school in Islamabad, and mingling with young students and discussing with them the environment and the value of learning.
But the fact remains, that the pomp and show constructed around the royal couple was carefully choreographed and programmed around clusters of high society, celebrities and elites. Their visits to ordinary places and meetings with laypersons, though symbolic, have only public relations value. The effects never filter down or even get registered with the larger public as genuine.
There has been a big cost to the working public in the two major cities, Islamabad and Lahore, in terms of traffic congestion of unprecedented proportions. As events were unwisely scheduled around the late afternoon, the routes to their places of visit had to be secured long before and long enough afterwards for security reasons. Commuters, literally tens of thousands, endured heat, dust and smoke on the roads, which doesn’t go a long way in making people truly care what benefits the visit may bring.
The visit was about connectivity with a larger world of the family of Commonwealth nations, free but under the symbolic tutelage of the royal family. That is the good part, but we cannot ignore other voices that portray the visit in a very different light, and indulge in unending debate about Pakistanis’ ‘colonial complex’ and the country’s infatuation with members of the same family that reigned over a long, bloody and humiliating colonial period, only two generations ago. Intellectually, these are important debates to have, in an age when critical sections of the population are engaged in the politics of identity.
- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).