I chanced upon a meme the other day. It has a smiling picture of our leading human rights defender, lawyer and social critic, Asma Jahangir, and a quote attributed to her. It says that if we could brave the oppression of someone like General Ziaul Haq, how can those with a design to dominate us ever succeed? As happens often on the internet, there is a possibility that she did not say the exact words or her words were paraphrased by an admirer. But knowing her courage and resolve to take on powers that be, she may have actually said this in as many words.
There are two things inherent in this statement. One, that General Ziaul Haq was as bad as it gets when it comes to the Pakistani state and its ruling class. No one can actually match him in curbing dissent and muffling voices; flogging journalists in public; incarcerating and torturing thousands of political workers, trade unionists, writers, poets and journalists; banning political outfits or not allowing social associations to function; changing the whole education system and curricula; and, not only sharply dividing his own people into sects, tribes, ethnicities, but in fact encouraging and equipping them to impose violence on each other.
The other thing inherent in the statement attributed to Asma is the celebration of a resilient struggle that Pakistanis put up in the face of oppression. To safeguard their civil and political rights, they did not refrain from challenging the worst dictator who has ruled this country. This means that people will never give up and continue their fight to subvert the ambition of powerful individuals and state institutions operating in the name of national interest.
The background to this statement, most probably, are the curbs imposed incrementally over the past few years on the freedom of speech of political leaders and critical but non-violent individuals of society while allowing bigots to continue to spew venom against the state and its citizens. We have also witnessed the unfortunate disappearances of bloggers and social media activists in recent weeks and that of political workers over the past many years.
Like many others, I would like to believe that Asma is right. The reason is simple: those who have had contact with some form of political work or social activism, ever in their lives, are able to develop a certain attitude towards life to preserve their optimism. They recount the small successes made in the struggle for justice, equality and realisation of human rights in their own countries. They find examples in history where people prevailed over their oppressors, revolutions were successfully brought about by underdogs and reforms were introduced and benefitted the people. They find alibis to remain satisfied with their existence and struggle to a large extent, if not entirely.
I also believe that General Ziaul Haq’s rule was the worst dictatorship we have experienced as Pakistanis. From using our own country and the soil of Afghanistan as fodder for the American cannons to fight the last physical battle of the cold war to hanging an elected prime minister to dismantling all institutions of democracy and governance to creating a hypocritical and violent society, it will be hard for any single ruler or an institution, military or civil, to be able to emulate him. After General Ziaul Haq and what he has brought upon our nation, it will be difficult to dig any deeper into the abyss.
But my positive attitude and recounting of successes made by the progressive movement in the past, examples from history and the alibis that would help me remain content with the ability of the forces of resistance and the possibility of their success are challenged when I look around and find no significant challenge to the ideas and institutions that dominate both the mind and the public space. I do not find enough reason to believe that Pakistanis as a people are left with the agency to put up a struggle against multiple forms of oppression. In fact, I am not even sure if there is any will left in a good number of people to put up resistance.
Asma and her generation were aided by conscientious political forces and an ethical media. In the times of General Ziaul Haq, there were cadres of the PPP led by Nusrat Bhutto and later Benazir, their allied left-wing parties like the Mazdoor Kissan Party, Qaumi Mahaz-e-Azadi or Awami National Party, democratic parties like the Pakistan Democratic Party led by Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, and religious parties like the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Pakistan of Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, that were all fighting tooth and nail for the restoration of democracy. Their workers – from Lahore to Quetta and Peshawar to Karachi – were resisting and taking on the brute force of the state.
There were hundreds of journalists like Minhaj Barna, Nisar Osmani, Mazhar Ali Khan and Aziz Siddiqui who would not give up in the face of terror. They would fill up jail cells and get humiliated and flogged in public – for instance Nasir Zaidi (who continues to work for The News in Rawalpindi) among many others.
What we are faced with is not just simply a state that is a monolith with a society underneath. It is a state that developed scores of tentacles to control the mind and body of society. But the nervous system failed, and control of the state over some of its tentacles, not all, was compromised. These tentacles have mutated and morphed and found new sources of energy within society – something they were supposed to control when they were originally grown.
The struggle, therefore, is not simple. It is not against a military dictator or a callous ruler or a political regime or a violent group. The struggle is to take on and transform the society in which we live, in addition to dealing with the coercive institutions of the state. The force of the state was never celebrated in a sizeable part of society as much as it is now.
There is no political party or force that demonstrates an effective resolve to clearly take on the bigotry in our society. Knowing full well that their own future is at stake, they are still not determined to be categorical and final in their approach to curb extremism and violence. Their political expediency for small gains and the lust for power in Islamabad or any of the provincial capitals make them cut deals with forces of darkness in broad daylight.
Then we have the media, particularly our powerful Urdu press and private television, which has taken upon itself to broadcast news round the clock for 24 hours. It is never-ending as there is no holiday for newsmakers or news breakers. Some of the most popular and influential media anchors, scribes, analysts and commentators blatantly incite hatred and provoke violence against individuals or groups of people they dislike or disagree with. There are obscurantists, fascists, misogynists and psychopaths who ride the airwaves and enter our living rooms every day.
The crises of our times are: the crisis of conscience in political parties and the crisis of ethics in the mass media. I do not agree with those who say that artists and creative writers are not producing enough quality and have receded from their position in society. If Habib Jalib and Ghani Khan are no more, Fahmida Riaz and Ashiq Buzdar continue to write. There are writers, poets, artists and performers who are young and promising and refuse to conform. But they have fewer comrades, associates, fellow travellers and sympathisers among current politicians and the contemporary media.
The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.