Demons of the deep state

The echoes of slaps

Nadeem F. Paracha

The day after the former opposition parties managed to oust Imran Khan as prime minister through a no-confidence vote, social media was rife with ‘news’ of the military chief or one of his senior officers having slapped him.

According to some on social media, as Khan was playing havoc with court orders and with the constitution, trying to delay (or even dismiss) the holding of the vote, the military chief or one of his senior officers reached the prime minister’s office. He urged him to allow the voting to go ahead and, on Khan’s refusal, the chief or the senior army officer slapped him. 

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Indeed, the former PM and some of his cronies did try to plunge the country into a serious crisis by trying to sneak past the orders of the country’s highest court, sabotage the constitution, and push the military to intervene. Indeed, Khan was willing to be ousted by a military coup rather than face the mortification of being ousted by the opposition through a no-confidence vote. But the slap bit was entirely fiction.

‘News’ of slaps (or thapparr) often comes up during political gossip in Pakistan and India. “The object of the slap [in South Asia] is not pain per se, but humiliation,” writes Raka Ray, a sociologist, in an essay for the 2011 collection Violence and Democracy in India

According to Amulya Gopalakrishnan, “In societies of respect and honour, the slap sounds louder” (Times of India, May 12, 2019). She adds that it is an order-maintaining function. A husband slapping a wife, a teacher slapping a student, a mother slapping a child, a policeman slapping a citizen, a seth [a title for a well-to-do person or factory owner] slapping a worker — in all these, the slap reinforces the slapper’s position of authority and puts the slapped ‘in his/her place.’

According to Ray, when a man slaps a man, the one slapped is made to feel like a woman — vulnerable, diminutive and ‘penetrable.’ In Western societies, slapping is largely associated with women. For example, women characters in most American and European films and TV shows, are shown slapping men (or other women). But the same is not the case in Indian and Pakistani films or TV shows. In these, both men and women can be seen delivering slaps. 

However, when women slap men, they’re wielding some other kind of power: usually class, or injured dignity (Gopalakrishnan, ibid). She slaps a servant to assert her class. She slaps a man who has questioned or soiled her izzat [honour]. She slaps a child who was exhibiting badtameezi [bad manners]. But these slaps — apart from the first, in which she was asserting the dominance of her class — are not about delivering humiliation. Yet, these can be weaponised as acts of rebellion. 

In the 1977 Urdu film Aaina, the female protagonist (played by the actress Shabnam) caused a stir when she was shown delivering a slap to her father (played by Talish). She wasn’t being a brat, but punishing him for conspiring to break her marriage to a man (played by Nadeem) who came from a lower-middle class background. It was a slap against arrogance and class prejudice. But such slaps (from women) — that turn the tables — are rare.

In 1989, ‘news’ in some tabloids claimed that a leader of the student wing of the PPP had slapped a senior member of the party. No such thing had happened. I was there. There was a heated exchange between the student leader and the senior member, but there was no slap.

Yet, the ‘news’ was carried by some Urdu tabloids. The idea was to more than allude how frustrations in the student wing against the senior leadership were leading to the youth humiliating their party elders. The concocted ‘news’ of the slap was the most effective way to establish this.

During the same period, some tabloids ‘reported’ that Asif Zardari, the husband of former PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister at the time, had slapped her. Again, there was no evidence. The ‘news’ was first floated by a right-wing weekly that had also published fatwas declaring that women could not head a government in an ‘Islamic republic’. So the concocted ‘news’ of Zardari slapping Benazir was a misogynic desire of the ‘reporter’ who wanted to see a woman PM put in her place. Her place was the home and not the political arena.

Similar ‘news’ also kept popping up during the Imran Khan regime, in which he was supposed to have slapped his wife for meddling in his political affairs. There is enough evidence that she was meddling, but not against her husband’s wishes. Khan had often said that he discussed political issues with her. But there is no evidence whatsoever that he slapped her. This was again a misogynic fantasy expressed as ‘news.’

In everyday Pakistani and Indian political lingo, the slap is mostly a metaphor. On some occasions, though, the metaphor gets mistaken as an actuality. An election victory of an individual or a party is often explained as ‘a slap in the face’ of opponents. When Khan’s PTI managed to win the second round of local bodies polls in KP (after Khan was ousted), party leaders and supporters explained it as a slap in the face of those who had ‘conspired’ to oust Khan.

In the same way, when the military establishment announced that there was no conspiracy by the US to oust the Khan regime (as claimed by the former PM), his opponents explained this as a slap in the face of Khan and his cronies.

Metaphorical or physical, the meaning of the slap remains to humiliate and downgrade a person’s status and standing, or to put them in their place. In this case, men do most of the slapping.

In 2016, while travelling on an international flight, an American couple seated in front of me were watching a Bollywood film. It was a 14-hour-flight. The American man began to chat with me, thinking I was from India. “Oh, I have also watched some Pakistani movies,” he said, when I told him I am from Pakistan. “They are like Indian films.” Then, after a pause, he asked, “Tell me, why are men in these films always slapping people? They even slap villains! Why not just punch them?” 

I told him that the punch would not give Pakistani and Indian audiences the kind of satisfaction that a slap does. The slap causes more emotional harm than a simple, boring punch.

I don’t think he quite got it.

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 24th, 2022

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