Throttling Dissent

Almost seventy years past independence, Pakistan continues to suffer under a searing ordeal of paranoia. Through its checkered history, the entrenched power corridors cultivated a discourse around ‘existential threat to the state’s survival’, nurturing general distrust of the activities of ‘civil society’ cadres and progressive elements. The hegemonic forces of the state have sought to perpetuate their dominance over polity by throttling dissent through acts of enforced disappearances, forceful detentions, and blatant kidnappings, thereby incubating an atmosphere of widespread dread and consternation. For that matter, progressive activism in Pakistan has by definition remained subject to pervasive ostracism.

Against this backdrop, scores of journalists, civil society activists, and progressive cadres have met tormenting tortures, detentions, and even murders. Civil society activist Raza Khan, who designed ‘Aghaz I Dosti’, a friendship initiative for Indian and Pakistani youth, was flagrantly apprehended from his residence on December 2, 2017. He was released seven months later. In another such case, six bloggers and rights-based activists were picked up between 4 and 7 January 2017 from Punjab and Islamabad. Besides that, a calculated social media drive was initiated blaming them for having committed blasphemy, further putting their lives in peril. In August 2015 Zeenat Shehzadi, a young journalist who was probing the disappearance of Indian national Hamid Ansari, was kidnapped in Lahore. Moreover, Sabeen Mahmood, the director of the Second Floor (T2F), was murdered in cold blood in Karachi in 2015. And the list goes on and on.

The issue of enforced disappearances is not a novel phenomenon for Pakistan. Commission on enforced disappearances affirms that since 2011 dead bodies of 936 of those disappeared were found in Baluchistan alone. What is more, in recent years space for civil society activists has substantially shrunk while at the same time, radical right-wing Mullas patently espousing violence and extremism roam about freely.

Apart from that, 2018 witnessed the emergence of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, a culmination of cumulative grievances of the downtrodden Pashtuns of Pakistan, demanding an end to extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by the state’s operative apparatus. Woefully, it is all the more depressing to learn that the hegemonic power corridors so blatantly attempt to thwart the legitimate demands of the people for the implementation of the Constitution. The approach to grapple with issues of such nature has increasingly taken on an authoritarian and/or totalitarian character.

Among other things, the latest drive on part of Pemra dispatching notifications to multiple TV channels validates the impression that only state-authorized propaganda is approved, while the broadcast of material tarnishing its image is dissuaded. Paradoxically, such a censoring of the media has only served to negatively affect the image of the country globally. In addition, in a bid to consolidate its control over the society more firmly, the state apparatus has pursued the policy of aggressive surveillance of online platforms. Such online monitoring, censorship and extra-legal measures cultivate an environment of fear among the citizens and prevent free debate. The online platforms of political parties are also not immune to the censor. Notwithstanding being officially registered as a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan, the leftist Awami Workers Party’s website was jammed preceding the 2018 election.

However, it is unsettling to note that the state apparatus quietly capitulates to the perpetrators of violence in the name of religion, while at the same time copes highhandedly with those expressing themselves without breaching any law. There exists a shared conviction among the ultra-conservative sections of the society that a secular, atheist social media crusade is underway against Islam as well as Pakistan. And this takes place against the background that harsh questions are raised, no less.

Additionally, nationalism and religion are instrumentalized to force people into embracing the state narrative. All this is carried out either by clandestine state apparatus or through forces targeting progressive groups. The continued silencing of dissent has only checked intellectual fermentation and undermined democratic values from striking roots in our society.

The ongoing wave of enforced disappearances directed against those voicing dissent against injustice and excesses committed on them, is alarming in that it foregrounds how unsafe the country is becoming for its own citizens. It is appalling to observe how the repressive apparatus of the state is targeting the people who are combating obscurantist forces to make this country peace-loving. The flawed policy of promoting extremists while remaining suspicious of progressives has badly boomeranged.

When bigotry and prejudice overwhelm the people synchronizing their voice with the oppressed and dejected in the society, an even more hazardous situation emerges. It is high time that the rule of law run its course in case anyone is implicated in subversive activities. The hoi polloi should not be divested of justice under any excuse of national security. As a matter of fact, the arbitrary resort to repressive measures to stifle dissent serves to erode national integrity and solidarity. Baluchistan epitomizes an illustrative case as to how the coercive approach has bred estrangement and engendered environment conducive to insurrection and enemy intelligence agencies to intervene.

The onus lies on the elected establishment to institute such policies as safeguard the people. It is, therefore, sine qua non for the incumbent government to ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people as set out in the constitution.

The writer can be reached at babarzahri@gmail.com

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