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January 12, 2017



Wages of freedom in a state of inquisition

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed quite sanguine while launching Zarb-e-Qalam (literally ‘stroke of the pen’), meant to intellectually counter the violent extremist mindset that produces terrorism. Alas, that was not to be in an inquisitional state of prohibition, monopolised by both state and non-state actors.


After the passage of the cyber crime law, the inquisitional state institutions, and proxies in some other cases, suddenly came into action against dissidents who had opted to create their own obscure platforms in the infinite cyber space to express what was otherwise prohibited in the land of the pure. Some prominent bloggers like Salman Haider, Waqar Goraya, Amir Saeed, Ahmed Raza and Samar Abbas had, with satirical nomenclatures, been expressing liberal and humanist concerns without any inhibition about what was ‘prohibited’ or socially discriminatory.

The disappearance of four members of the dissident blogger community reminded us of the notorious saga of mysterious ‘disappearances’. The disappearances also reminded freedom lovers of the brutalities of xenophobic religious fascists in Bangladesh against secular intellectuals.

But in our case, so far, it has been inquisitional state institutions which have been allegedly responsible for mass disappearances in Balochistan and elsewhere. Even raising a voice against the invisible state incorporation is tantamount to treachery and is usually punished beyond the domain of the law.

The plight of the five bloggers in illegal detention is not yet known – as has been the case in hundreds of such cases of ‘disappearances’ where clarity is the last thing we have come to expect. Instead we have a situation where proxies on the internet actively bash and even incite violence against those who dare raise the banner of peace, human rights, rule of law and raise a voice against the highhandedness of those who remain above both the law and legitimate parliamentary oversight.

Former PPP prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had once surprisingly spoken about the “state within the state” – often referred to as the ‘powers that be’ or ‘deep state’ or simply ‘state’ by a self-censoring media – and had to beat a hapless retreat under pressure from the Kayani-Pasha duo. It needs to be recalled that the Kayani-Pasha duo was instrumental in manufacturing the ‘Memogate’ scandal to divert attention from the humiliation of the US marines’ kill-Osama-and-run-operation in Abbottabad. 

Under pressure from the international human rights community and the continuing protests against the disappearances of Baloch activists and ‘other outlaws’, a judicial commission was formed to investigate the phenomenon of disappearances and illegal detentions. The commission was headed by Justice Saqib Nisar, who now heads the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Justice Saqib Nisar also conducted a judicial inquiry into the abduction and brutal killing of journalist Saleem Shehzad.

Although both the inquiry commissions understandably failed to find the culprits in both the judicial investigations, they did make remarkable recommendations to bring the state intelligence agencies under some kind of oversight, ISI and IB in particular. But the successive civilian dispensations and legislatures did not have enough will to bring them under oversight and audit. They have become a state unto themselves and are reluctant to share information even on a ‘need basis’.

Instead of curbing hate speech, sectarian apostatising of one sect against the other and promotion of violent ideologies on the cyber space, the invisible state incorporations have been more active against those who have been representing the democratic and progressive aspirations of a section of our youth.

All genuine efforts in the past to monitor and regulate intelligence agencies, such as those undertaken by Air Marshal Zulfikar or General Kalu, did not materialise. Indeed secret agencies play a crucial role in the security and safety of countries, but they work under effective regulatory frameworks. Our intelligence agencies have been playing a remarkable role in countering hostile powers and their networks. But, as elsewhere in the world, there is a darker side too in the business of secret agencies that needs to be checked and regulated to keep them within the ambit of the law.

The disappearance of bloggers or political/social activists also represents the nature of political power in this country, which combines religious ideology with authoritarianism and militarism. By joining Western military alliances and pioneering jihad or holy war against the Saur Revolution and Soviets in Afghanistan, the powers that be created the ideological and militaristic environment for the Talibanisation of society and nourishment of non-state terrorist proxies to pursue their narrow security agendas. It was a dangerous gamble that backfired, and which continues to pose an existential threat to our state and diverse society.

By sharing its exclusive monopoly over instruments of coercion with non-state actors, the state in fact created the necessary conditions for its implosion from within and our civil society lies fractured on sectarian and ethnic lines. 

Against this backdrop, when the interior minister somehow refuses to equate sectarian terrorist organisations or banned sectarian outfits with renegade terrorist outfits and refuses to control the madressahs belonging to sectarian and proscribed organisations, he ironically facilitates terrorism and violent extremism and erodes the very democratic premises he is supposed to stand upon. Instead of accepting his failure as interior minister amid calls for his resignation, he resorts to trashing the findings of Justice Qazi Isa’s judicial inquiry report on the Quetta carnage.

The fault lies with the perceived ideological genesis of our state. Nation-building on the basis of religion, though carved out on a territorial basis in the Indus Basin, provides a most conducive environment for sectarian divisions and communalisation. Instead of uniting the nation and strengthening territorial nationhood, excessive use of religion in the affairs of the state has divided the nation on sectarian lines.

The saving grace for a Muslim-majority state is the notion of egalitarian Islam among the masses that has saved us from becoming another Iraq or Syria. But, dangerously enough, this tolerant space is fast eroding under the expanding networks of sectarian parties that are being wrongly patronised to counter ethnic nationalism. In the war against terror, the most important remedy is not Zarb-e-Azb but Zarb-e-Qalam.

Instead of countering violent and sectarian ideologies, an ideological state is intrinsically allowing them the greater space, rather than supporting the enlightened segments of society who are being squeezed.

Both the civilian and military wings of the state need to be on the same page to strengthen rule of law and preserve the national cohesion that is being undermined by rising sectarianism. They need to protect rather than silence the voices of sanity and tolerance. Civil society has shown the courage to come out in defence of freedom of expression; the state must listen to them instead of suppressing the voices that give us hope of a civilised, tolerant and peaceful Pakistan. 

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA