All over the world, elections are supposed to be about manifestoes, parties and candidates. It is rather a bizarre situation that elections in our country often focus on a more fundamental issue undergirding our political system: which institution will hold decisive power in framing the contours of our internal and external policies? This election season, there is an additional pressure of warding off threats of allegations that one is a foreign agent, with no less than half a dozen important political leaders, including Nawaz Sharif, accused of being in cahoots with hostile foreign powers.
Now, nobody seriously believes that a man who has been a central figure in the power structure for more than three decades has been working for any foreign agency. Instead, such allegations of treachery are now a calculated tactic to delegitimise opponents – not by responding to their views, but by questioning their very right to remain a part of the national community. The levelling of such allegations at the highest echelons of the state has created a toxic environment in which petty disputes are settled through the invocation of the ‘traitor card.’
I experienced its cynical use personally when my former employer, the University of the Punjab, fired me for supporting students in raising concerns over the abysmal situation at the premiere university of the province. These concerns included the quality of education, the lack of any career counselling, no redressal mechanism for victims of sexual harassment, increasing victimisation based on ethnic and religious grounds, and the general lack of student representation in the university’s affairs.
The university wanted to sweep this issue under the carpet, but after I went public with it, they made a number of contradictory claims that were more suited to a dark comedy than a site of higher learning. Initially, the administration said that I never taught at the university. After undeniable evidence of my presence as a teacher was presented on social media, and protests were held by students in the Department of Sociology, the university administration decided to level charges of treason against me, claiming that my presence was a “threat to national integrity”. The implication was clear; any criticism of the university administration was a criticism of the Pakistani state, and consequently, any criticism of the Pakistani state was treason, which meant that one should question the system only at his/her own peril.
Less than a week after making the allegations, the vice chancellor of PU, the self-appointed defender of national integrity, was dismissed by the chief justice on corruption charges for illegally selling 80 kanals of university land to the Punjab government. This confirmed my view that levelling allegations of treason against those with differing points of view is today the last refuge of a scoundrel!
But the harassment and attacks faced by myself and my family in the aftermath of these allegations – including accusations that I was part of “5th generation warfare” (whatever that means) – was a fraction of what more vocal political activists, especially from the peripheries, are facing today. The most painful, and for this reason the most symbolically potent, example of this dehumanisation is the policy of enforced disappearances. I once wrote that missing people should be referred to as political prisoners, since they have been abducted for no other reason than voicing a dissenting political opinion. Such abductions also make a mockery of the elections, as some of the brightest, most vocal and active citizens are denied a platform to air their grievances during the election cycle. For years, there were complaints of the theft of citizens’ votes during the election. This time around, we are witnessing the theft of citizen’s bodies.
The biggest tragedy of this myopic policy is the logic of citizenship in the country. A political community based on citizens should ideally work on a shared set of principles that need to be constantly re-evaluated based on the changing circumstances. And the only legitimate avenue for such a re-evaluation is the public domain, where there should be open and thorough debate. Yet, the constant fear of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ makes it difficult to meet this criterion, with ‘traitor’ becoming an imprecise word for anything that exceeds the logic of power in Pakistan.
The result is that citizens are expunged from the political community, and enter what I would call the ‘logic of pain’. Here, the right of a citizen to think, speak and act freely collapses, and s/he is reduced to the body. Rather than coming into conversation with dissenting opinions, the body of the dissenter is abducted and ‘fixed’ through confinement and torture. Politically speaking, the real targets are not those who are abducted, but the general population who are always potentially susceptible to critical ideas. It is an attempt to remind us all that, despite the long history of citizenship in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and despite all the safeguards given to citizens in Pakistan’s constitution, human beings are still mere animals with bodies. And those bodies can be hurt and can feel pain, and hence the ideal way to avoid suffering is by avoiding the ideas that will necessitate the application of pain on our bodies.
This physiological basis for acquiring consent not only empties citizenship of all its content, but also reverses the usual understanding of ideology. Noam Chomsky famously said that our consent is manufactured in modern times through the manipulation of our minds by the media industry. In such a schema, the system at least tries to win over the population by bombarding them with propaganda in the hope of influencing their opinion, and subsequently, their actions. In contemporary Pakistan, however, the system does not even try to present cogent arguments to win over the public. It simply reminds them of the vulnerability of their being through the fragility of the human body. Conformity is then not acquired through the manipulation of the mind, but through the threats directed at the body, in the hope that the mind will be rational enough to elevate bodily survival over subversive thoughts that excite it.
At the end, the fact that those at the helm have run out of arguments in their support is not a sign of their strength, but of a deep weakness. And this is why small but vibrant protests, like the ones recently held by the Voice of the Missing Persons Sindh in Karachi and Islamabad, create such panic for the administrators. The only method for disciplining populations that our rulers understand is one based on popular fear. But if a few citizens reject the climate of fear by voluntarily putting their bodies on the line, they attack the last barricade set up by the system.
Our challenge today is to struggle for a political community that is based on universal values and open discussion, rather than that in which one is constantly reminded of an animal-like existence. And this requires the moral courage to confront this logic of pain that has been imposed upon the entire society. Unless that happens, the missing persons will remain the most important symbols of our era, existing somewhere in the zone between life and death, their absence haunting our political present for its vacuity and disorientation.
The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.