Tuesday February 27, 2024

Dealing with dissent

January 11, 2017

Part - I


Every state has some form of ideological foundations – whether the state is considered an ideological state like Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and Israel or is not considered one (like US, Turkey, Canada and South Africa).

Every state has some fundamental principles to run its affairs which the power elites and the influential middle classes of that state largely agree upon. For instance, if a state is not theocratic like Iran, religious-cum-democratic like Pakistan, both faith-based and ethnocentric like Israel or does not subscribe to a specific economic and political ideology like North Korea, it still has some basic principles to which it adheres to like electoral democracy, secularism, protection of the right to own private property, equal citizenship, supremacy of the monarch or regimentation of a party, etc.

Likewise, in every society there are some acceptable norms and behaviour patterns for an individual to follow. Some societies are freer to different degrees in terms of people expressing personal opinions on controversial matters, deciding how and what to wear, being open about sexual preferences and choosing how to lead their lives. Some other societies are more conservative in these matters, again in varying degrees.

Then we have policies developed and pursued by the permanent institutional establishments of states as well as incoming and outgoing political governments that periodically run these states. These policies can include economic, financial and banking policies, social sector development policies in areas like education and health, internal security, defence and external affairs policies. Within the remit of these policies in all the areas mentioned here, there are strategies developed by powers that be to tackle, resolve, settle or attack the issues, challenges, threats and dangers faced by them. Other than the strategic choices they make, there are tactical steps taken by them as well on a somewhat day to day basis. 

In every state and society there are people who dissent. People who do not agree with the ideological foundations or fundamental principles of the state, policies made and undertaken by the institutional establishment and/or political governments, strategies employed to counter real or perceived threats faced by the state and tactical steps taken to safeguard their interests. Besides, there are people who disagree with the powers that be on the facts shared and information provided to people on different issues.

Some of those who disagree may not necessarily be critical or dismissive of the fundamental principles around which the state is organised. But they dismiss the information provided by the powerful quarters who are running the state – whether the information is about policy options, strategic choices or tactical measures and the successes achieved or failures reverted as a consequence of making these options and choices.

Therefore, in every nation-state and every human society there are people who question, challenge, disagree and criticise the conventional official positions and acceptable social norms. The institutional establishment and/or political governments of every state have to deal with dissent. While the whole range of dissent – from mere difference of opinion to challenging the very basis of an ideology – is fundamental to creating a democratic polity, it is also a benchmark for developing a healthy society. A healthy and humane society where everyone feels safe and happy is what most people want, including the kith and kin, friends and colleagues, parents and children of those who are responsible for making decisions to curb dissent.

What the powerful decision-makers need to understand perhaps is that, eventually, either every person feels safe and happy in a country and society or no one does. When we desensitise a society to the extent that it becomes callous, it is simply a matter of time that people get the brunt of that prevalent desensitisation. Not only the decisions made but the trends set by the actions of the powerful have long-lasting consequences for the country and society in which their own families and friends also live.

That brings us to the question of how politically modern, socially advanced, economically successful and culturally vibrant states deal with dissent. We can also look at those examples where states opted not to understand and deal with dissent by letting it flourish but decided to curb it. And that will help us draw some lessons and consequently speculate the future of states where dissent is not allowed to exist today.

While growing up in the dark and devious times of Gen Ziaul Haq, I was lucky to have an interesting set of family and friends who believed in progressive politics and socialist economy. But while I developed a romance with the socialist ideology, I also succumbed to the illusion of looking at the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as ideal states formed by humanity – of course, without having ever seen them. The contradiction was that we wanted authoritarianism to end in Pakistan but supported the same in Eastern Europe. This was partly without knowing how authoritarianism worked there and partly being convinced that the Eastern Bloc had an inclusive dispensation for all classes and citizens.

But it was in 1989, the year of Glasnost and Perestroika, that I could see the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). I had the opportunity to be a part of Pakistan’s delegation to the International Festival of Youth and Students held in Pyongyang and participate in the Literature Workshop at the festival. At that time too I had to make an effort but I still succeeded in tricking myself into believing that the deficiencies in the Soviet Union and the oppression in North Korea were a result of Western imperialism. But a part of me remained perturbed. However, it became clear to me when I worked in Eastern Europe in the middle of the 1990s that the curbing of dissent in the name of checking the capitalist-imperialist ambitions of the West in the Soviet Union and in Central and Eastern Europe shook the very foundations of these states.  

Then we see advanced countries, constitutional or monarchic democracies from the US and Canada to Scandinavian countries and France on both sides of the Atlantic to Japan and Australia in the Pacific Ocean that are not just continuously learning how to deal with it but also how to incorporate dissent in their policymaking. Even in the US, which may well be the least ideal example in this list of countries, we have arch critics and dissenters of the state establishment – from intellectual Noam Chomsky to filmmaker Michael Moore – free to live and produce their work. An extreme example is the famous ‘Texas vs. Johnson’ case. First the judges in Texas and then the majority in the US Supreme Court saw the act of burning the US flag as a protected right of a citizen. The flag belongs to the citizen as much as it belongs to the state.

States and societies that leave ample space for dissent become stronger and healthier. The more intelligent ones, in fact, encourage alternative opinions to the extent that they challenge the very basis of preconceived or recognised ideologies. They use these opinions to create better strategies in the interest of the people. Thinkers and scholars may argue that expressing dissent with pen and brush, words and caricatures, free speech and non-violent resistance may enlighten a society intellectually but even for smart statecraft practitioners, it should be obvious that such dissent prevents dissatisfaction expressing itself through violence.

It is a matter of decades when we will see stricter regimes across the world today either allowing more space for internal dissent or crumbling from within. But in Pakistan, we have learned how not to learn. Did keeping people like Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Habib Jalib behind bars ever help a regime during its time or in the wider public imagination afterwards? Therefore, people like Salman Haider – whom one knows as a talented poet and artiste – and other such activists must never be stopped from expressing their views, leave alone being made to disappear.


To be continued

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.