The Mythology of Monuments

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The Mythology of Monuments

Driving towards Nishan-e-Pakistan ­­–a newly inaugurated "national solidarity monument" – a series of new adverts along Sea View road catches my eye.

Sacredness and Art
Learning to See

Driving towards Nishan-e-Pakistan ­­–a newly inaugurated “national solidarity monument” – a series of new adverts along Sea View road catches my eye. Eachboard shows a soldier posing on rocky terrain, next to the Pakistan flag. The image is familiar. Soldier. Gun. Flag. Mountain. This had to be North Waziristan. The message reads over and over again:

                        ZARB-E-AZB. Hope Restored. Thank you Pak Army.


As I approach Nishan-e-Pakistan, I notice its entrance resembles a triumphal arch. This monumental structure, built in the shape of an archway, was used in ancient Rome to commemorate military triumphs. It is little surprise that the military, with its penchant for authoritarianmonuments, would use this western architecture to mark its supposed victory of the Zarb-e-Azb military operation. The Roman orders sit uneasily with the arabesque ornamentation. Looming beyond the gate is a flag post, the largest in the country, standing tall at 148 feet.


The gate is closed. The guard informs me that the monument is only open to the public on weekend evenings.It is just Monday today. I peer through the bars. The plaque upfront reads:

This memorial is created to pay tribute for the sacrifices of the heroes of Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Further ahead, stands a circular wall commemorating heroes. Only two bas-relief sculptures are visible from the gate. One of course is that of Jinnah. The other is that of Captain Karnal Sher Khan. Killed during the Kargil conflict in 1999, he is presented as the first officer from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to be awarded with Nishan-e-Haider – the highest military award.I wonder why Sher Khan has been chosen for this prime location.



Fig. 1 Seaview road, Karachi


Fig 2. Entrance to Nishan-e-Pakistan (Source: Cantonment Board Clifton)


War as Culture: Framing of Zarb-e-Azb


On 15 June 2014, the Pakistan army launched the military operation Zarb-e-Azbagainst “foreign and local terrorists” hiding in North Waziristan Agency. The very title of the military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, emphasizes the state’s divine right to wage war, as Azb was the name of Prophet Muhammad’s sword. An Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement announced that”terrorists had waged a war against the state of Pakistan and had been disrupting our national life in all its dimensions.”[1] Major General Asim Bajwa further stated that these terrorists had “perpetually terrorised the entire peace loving and patriotic local population.” He said, “Our valiant armed forces have been tasked to eliminate these terrorists regardless of hue and color, along with their sanctuaries… these enemies of the state will be denied space anywhere across the country.”


During this operation (still on-going), visuality has been mobilised as a key strategy for the performance of military power, a potent means of laying claim to a treacherous landscape. These representational devices have mediated and rationalized the necessity and material reality of Zarb-e-Azb to a national audience. This section traces the “frames” of war that have been deployed through visual and cultural regimes by the military and media to convey, determine and delimit the public’s knowledge and understanding of this war.[2]


North Waziristan is one of the seven agencies that make up Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Majed Akhter traces the history of this frontier region, explaining that the “Pakistani state, following its imperial predecessors, has actively created FATA as an exceptional region: an aberration that exists outside the state’s constitutional laws.”[3]FATA remains a space of exception where the juridical protections of law are suspended and the sovereign is able to subject the territory to unmitigated violence, relegating millions to second-class legal status.


Depictions of the region have routinely relied on a characterization of its inhabitants, the Pakhtuns, as “rugged” and “intractable”, and its mountainous landscape as “dangerous” and “treacherous”. At the core of such framing is the mobilization of imaginative geographies. These are constructions that fold distance into difference through a series of spatializations. Edward Said argued that imaginative geographies work by multiplying partitions and enclosures that serve to demarcate “the same” from the other, at once constructing and calibrating a gap between the two by “designating in one’s mind a familiar space that is ours and an unfamiliar space beyond ours which is theirs.”[4] The difference and distance that constitute imaginative geographies are set in motion and made meaningful through cultural practices. Media coverage of Zarb-e-Azb continues to rely on this colonial strategy of othering, through which the region is repeatedly evoked in the national imaginary as a failed, feral, terrorist-infested space.



Fig. 3 (Source:


Amongst the first few images released by ISPR to accompany the announcement of Zarb-e-Azb was a photograph of a Pakistan army troop walking on high altitude, with a Pakistan flag floating in the background (Fig. 3). The group of soldiers fill and almost crowd the frame of the photograph, blocking the view of the surrounding environment. Walking with purpose towards the camera, these soldiers represent a physical and symbolic occupation of the hinterland. Devoid of any specific topographical markers, the soldiers occupy an almost abstract, passive space. Place is given little importance, as the focus remains on the presence and might of the army. This could be anywhere and everywhere.


While the insurgent landscape remained unrepresented in this initial image, other kinds of imaginative geographies were already being produced and circulated. For instance, reports repeatedly identified the terrorists in North Waziristan as foreign: Uzbeks, Uighurs, Turks, Chechens and even Europeans. The army claimed that the Zarb-e-Azb operation was unique from its predecessors, because whilst the army was fighting local leaders in Swat, “the militants fighting security forces in North Waziristan, apart from including foreigners, were also foreign-led.”[5] Mug shots of foreign terrorists and images of passports accompanied articles to prove this foreignness beyond doubt (Fig. 4). This visual documentation enabled North Waziristan to be dehumanized and demonized, framed as an infested space and breeding ground for aliens that needed to be reclaimed. These faces, presented to us as symbols of evil, authorize us to become senseless before those lives that have been eradicated during the operation. The unleashing of terrible violence and destruction becomes easier to justify in the public eye.



Fig. 4 A compilation of Uzbek/Uighur terrorist mugshots (Source:


A month into the operation, as the Pakistan army announced that it had taken control of 80 percent of a strategic town, Miramshah, Dawn published an article “Miramshah in pictures: After the troops march in”. This was the first in-depth visual depiction of the war landscape. The images show soldiers standing next to demolished houses (Fig. 5-7). The debris is testament to the brute power of the military. No home has been spared in its mission to thoroughly cleanse the region of insurgency. The only home shown intact is a Taliban house – we are told it was being used as a prison. Are we to assume by association that all the destroyed homes belonged to the Taliban?



Fig. 5 Soldier at Miramshah (Source:



Fig. 6



Fig. 7


The anonymity of the debris makes this a suspect conclusion. Many of these homes must have belonged to ordinary residents of Miramshah. At this thought, the hyper patriotic frame falters and destabilizes. The absence of civilian life in the images becomes haunting, a reminder of the 1 million people who were forced to flee their homes following the military occupation.Residents of North Waziristan, now relegated to the label of internally displaced persons (IDPs), have gone on record to say that no warnings were given about the operation to them. Bomb attacks started suddenly, homes were demolished with family members still inside.


Therefore these images that signify military conquest, simultaneously also represent sites of dispossession, of violent displacement. The rubble is witness to the ruination of people’s lives and landscapes. Ann Stoler describes these remnants of war as imperial debris. While talking about post-war Iraq, she turns attention “not to the immediate violence of Iraq… but to the enduring quality of imperial remains and what they render in impaired states.”[6] She turns to ruins – the decimated landscapes and gutted infrastructure ­– as a way of understanding”what people are left with, to what remains, to aftershocks of empire, to material social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things.” In North Waziristan, where towns and villages have been razed to the ground by the army, Zarb-e-Azb is a ruin-making endeavour laying waste to lives and places.


These wasted lives are routinely denied representation. When they do rarely appear in the media,they remain faceless, always waiting in long never-ending lines, as if their existence is frozen in time. Whether in line for food, polio or for issuance of identiy cards that prove they are not terrorists, the displaced residents of North Waziristan are represented as passive bystanders, without agency. Theirs are not considered liveable lives or grievable deaths.



Fig 8. IDPs from North Waziristan (Source:



Fig. 9 IDPs from North Waziristan queuing outside a World Food Programme  food distribution point in Bannu (Source:


Materializing history, Legitimizing present: The making of Nishan-e-Pakistan


The collective memories and official narratives represented by monuments are also products of framing strategies and devices. Much like the media framing, monuments are also operations of power, materializing frames of war that are always politically saturated. James Young explains that monuments seek “to provide a naturalizing locus for memory, casting a state’s triumphs and matyrs, its ideals and founding myths, its forms as naturally true as the landscape in which they stand.”[7]These are always sustaining illusions.


Monuments thrive on remaking the residue of past decades into material and contemporary resonance, offering the public resources for making sense of the past and forging collective national identity and belonging.[8]Nishan-e-Pakistan is a military-sponsored monument that creates its own selective memory landscape, a recollection of the past defined in national terms. Its grandiose, frivolous architecture contrasts starkly with the ruins of North Waziristan. One wonders why the army has spent so much money building this monument, when it could have been rebuilding bombarded homes?


Nishan-e-Pakistan follows the traditional function of monuments as a self-aggrandizing vessel for a sanitized national memory that affirms the righteousness of the nation’s birth. Its wall of heroes commemorates the martyrdom of eleven army officers. Each official’s portrait is carved out as a life-sized bas-relief sculpture, accompanied by a didactic plaque. These are placed alongside a sculpture of Pakistan’s founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah, linking the heroic efforts of the army to protect Pakistan to the very birth of Pakistan.

Iftikhar Dadi in his analysis of popular culture, explains that the frequent inclusion of Jinnah in political posters for instance creates “a hegemonic popular spectacle of continuity… a spectacular establishment-driven narrative, which papers over otherwise blatant historical and ideological disjunctures.”[9] It is perhaps for the same sake of spectacle that Nishan-e-Pakistan is located at sea view beach, the most popular tourist spot of the city.


This commemorative wall carefully anchors collective memory in specific moments of history. It materializes a selective chronology of Pakistan’s military wars with India: the first Indo-Pakistan war of 1948, skirmishes of 1958, the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 and 71, and the Kargil conflict of 1999. The successive sculptures tell a story of battles, bravery and patriotism.Inconvenient truths are swept aside. The bloodshed, decimation and displacement that accompanied the many wars, the irreversible ruination of people’s lives and landscape, are erased from the national narrative of remembrance. Instead we are presented with eleven worthy lives, which recall the martyrdom of all those military men who gave their lives in the struggle for national existence. The monument enables a rearrangement of national memory to produce a cleaner, more comfortable national identity.


While majority of the martyrs on display are from Punjab, representatives of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan are included as examples of good patriotic citizenry even in regions of conflict. This ethnic mix serves as a visual reminder of national unity and cohesion, underlining its publicized function as a “national solidarity monument.”


The monument’s constructed timeline of past wars helps to legitimise the army’s looming role in nation-building. While the monument makes no direct reference to the immediate present, the adverts publicising Zarb-e-Azb on the road outside, tie this past history with the continued success and action of the army. Read together, this site evokes a genealogy of military prowess and sacrifice, where claims from earlier decades mix with the present-day need for continued paternal protection from the army.


In a statement from September 2014, General Sharif while talking about the army’s success in flushing out militants from North Waziristan, added:

On September 6, 1965, the Pak Army had defeated the enemy and had won the war to establish peace in the country. At that time, too, the entire nation was behind the army and the same is case today when the army is engaged in the operation against militants.[10]


This recourse to history, evident in Sharif’s speech and the monument, produces a harmonious, uninterrupted unity with the past. Remembrance and commemoration becomes a process not of simple retrieval but of a reconfiguration that colonizes the past. As Young suggests “monuments may not remember events so much as bury them altogether beneath layers of national myths and explanations.”[11]Nishan-e-Pakistan is a case in point.







Fig. 10-12 Wall of heroes at Nishan-e-Pakistan




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