Looking for conspiracies and foreign hands in almost every social or political act has become a norm in Pakistan. Facts are only facts when they get some institutional cover. If not, even brute facts like natural disasters are termed as conspiracies.
The unending war on terror has made Pakistanis more vulnerable. Along with bloodshed, mayhem and money, it has brought many ills to our society. The war has also militarised our society further. There was a time when our children seldom got to see soldiers on the streets, in front of mosques or even outside the gates of their schools. But the war on terror has brought them into our social fabric.
We weren’t prepared for this war and it has brought many other ills into our social consciousness. Among these are deadly labels like ‘terrorist’, ‘traitor’, ‘extremist’, ‘fascist-liberal’, ‘anti-Pakistan’ and ‘anti-Islam’ – all of which are based on individual perception, with no objective definition by the law. Although such labels have always existed, their use was mostly limited to the wrangling among the political elite. Now these labels are used so vehemently by people on social media and in public gatherings that a reasonable man would choose to remain silent on a political, social or international issue just to refrain from using them.
Controlling social realities and moulding them into warlike narratives tends to become the modus operandi in perpetual wars. This is why freedom of expression has been hampered in Pakistan and fears are manufactured in its place. This is why some voices are given more of an impetus by our media while others are not heard at all.
A few thousand people, mostly tribesmen from South Waziristan, have been holding peaceful protests outside the Islamabad Press Club since February 1. Their major demand is to ensure punishment for former Malir SSP Rao Anwar who is responsible for the death of a young man in an ‘encounter’ after being labelled a ‘terrorist’. The tribesmen have also used this as an opportunity to raise objections against the deadly landmines in their areas and demand an end to the enforced disappearances and long curfew in Fata.
Some circles have, by now, started speculating about who has brought these people to the capital, and who is funding their daily needs and planning their other logistics. A daily newspaper even attributed the media blackout of the protests to slogans that are being raised by some of the aggrieved youth from the tribal belt. But we cannot forget that the media gave 24/7-coverage to a sit-in by a cleric from Punjab, the fiery Khadim Hussain Rizvi, in November 2017, even though he was spewing every possible abuse at the judiciary and politicians.
This does not mean that every ‘provocative slogan’ of the current protest in Islamabad should be given full coverage. Instead of blacking them out in this manner, the media and the state must show some empathy. The protesters must be heard because this is the least that they deserve.
The tribal region has witnessed countless challenges in terms of development. The people of the tribal belt have been victims of proxy wars since the 1980s, and Fata has been a no-go area for the media. What we hear is just an official narrative, which can never provide a true and inclusive picture.
Pakistan has witnessed severe tensions on its eastern and western borders. Given this scenario, it has become even more imperative to treat those citizens who live near the borders with greater empathy.
The people of Fata need to be treated with more dignity than they have been shown in the past. It is time our state listened carefully to these ‘provocative slogans’ and tried to understand any mistakes made in dealing with people from the region.
Instead of blaming those who have sacrificed their lives, livelihood, homes and land of playing into the hands of the enemy, we must engage in self-assessment. Silence does not always mean consent. It can also mean helplessness.