Sunday June 23, 2024

Dealing with dissent

By Harris Khalique
January 18, 2017

Part - II


In any state and society, tolerance for dissent is the first step towards making the state and society internally strong, safe and civilised. However, the word ‘tolerate’ has a certain degree of uneasiness latent in its meaning. That one tolerates this dissent from one’s own position out of some social, economic, legal or political compulsion but may not like the existence of it.

The next stage is the acceptance of dissent. Here, one would accept that there will always be different points of view, conflicting ideas and divergent interpretations of a concept, thesis or text. Finally, it is the respect for dissent – where not only difference is accepted but cherished, debated, reviewed and understood – that helps create an informed, enlightened, confident and healthy state and society.

Human beings are the same everywhere in terms of their needs, feelings, desires and aspirations. Nevertheless, if we recognise class differences among individuals as real and dissimilar stages of economic development of diverse societies as obvious, there are some basic differences in culture and group behaviour which must also be recognised. There is a community psyche, as it were, which plays a significant role in undertaking actions and shaping reactions. Both social behaviour and political attitude are products of this community psyche of people living together for centuries or inhabiting a particular region in the world.

Even when the material conditions of a community or people change and become similar to those of some other people elsewhere in the world, there are responses that remain unique to that society and people. For instance, Japan is as similar to the West as it gets when it comes to economic development, technological advancement, democratic polity and cultural spaces. But take a trip to the US and then visit Japan. The two countries and societies are strikingly unlike each other in so many ways.

Here I come to our region of South Asia. When I emphasise that we are different it does not mean that we are better or worse. But we are different from East Asians, be they Chinese, Japanese or Koreans. We are very different from Europeans, be they English, German or French. And this remains so even after being ruled by the British for a century and having remained under their domination for two. We are different from Arabs, Iranians and Turks in West Asia and the Middle East. We are different from Africans and Latin Americans.

Our responses and reactions are different, our attitude towards power is different and our cultural expression is different. In terms of our intellect and reasoning, we are argumentative, forceful, resilient, and, on so many occasions, counterintuitive. Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’ is an important work in many ways but it is also useful to understand the tradition of public debate and intellectual pluralism in South Asia from the times of Gautam Buddha. Also in recent history, we find the same emphasis on debate and discourse in different intellectual, political, cultural and religious traditions of the Subcontinent.

Our people who have been invaded and conquered for centuries somehow manage to retain their spirit. From our middle classes to our oppressed castes, we endure and we survive. We may lie low, even for longer periods of time, but then we rise and we challenge. Before I come to Pakistan, let me give you an example from other countries in the region. Nepal, which was the only Hindu monarchy in the world with supposedly a very conservative society, transformed into a secular democracy due to a long struggle waged by its people. This happened just a few years ago.

In India, when the incumbent prime minister’s photograph replaced Mahatma Gandhi’s in a certain symbolic picture, even those modernist liberals who despise the Gandhian model of development raised a hue and cry. Leave alone so many others, ranging from Arundhati Roy to Kanhaiya Kumar, who openly challenge the amalgam of narrow-mindedness and neo-liberalism embodied in the politics of Prime Minister Modi. In Bangladesh, there is a large segment of population that is challenging the exercise of absolute power against political opponents by the incumbent prime minister. These people include many of those who supported the liberation of Bangladesh.

In Pakistan, like in other South Asian countries, our power elites somehow refrain from learning from our own history and political experience to tolerate, accept or respect dissent. The desire to have absolute control and complete hegemony over thoughts and minds has not helped us ever. Our minds are shaped in a certain way for a number of reasons including our political history, economic development, social movements that are specific to our needs and conditions, and, communal composition in terms of various faiths and sects practised and a diversified ethnic base.

Let us recall the famous incarceration of our arch poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the trials and tribulations of our arch fiction writer Saadat Hasan Manto during the first decade of our independence. The state made Faiz languish in prison for more than four years. What happened later? Faiz is not simply considered a poet of resistance by people or even the state. He is the undisputed cultural icon for Pakistan. Manto saw immensely tough times both at the hands of the government of his times, and society whose norms and hypocrisy he exposed and challenged. Today, he rules the hearts and minds of people including those who are a part of the power elite.

Likewise, from Gul Khan Naseer in Balochistan to Shaikh Ayaz in Sindh to Ghani Khan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, all our poets and writers in different Pakistani languages are respected and revered while those who constrained them have passed into total oblivion.

In the realm of politics, we lost a part of the country after all our efforts to politically and militarily suppress that sentiment – which was initially for autonomy but quickly turned into one for secession after the military operation. No one can deny external support in dismembering the country. But who created the hotbed for an external intervention by refusing to honour the electoral mandate of the biggest political party to emerge in united Pakistan?

If we look at our social life, the emphasis on public morality and making laws to socially regulate individuals and communities – placing more emphasis on controlling sin rather than controlling crime – are all subverted by large numbers of people. That turns us into a hypocritical and unhealthy society where alcohol is banned for consumption by the Muslim citizens but either flows like water for the rich or is locally brewed by the poor who at times also die consuming this moonshine. Besides that, drug addiction poses a constant challenge in our colleges, streets and homes. 

Beyond a certain point, Pakistanis – be they Sindhis, Baloch, Pakhtuns, Punjabis, Mohajirs, Seraikis, Gilgitis, Hazaras – push back and challenge the undue and unreasonable exercise of power by anyone and everyone. We must not forget that people refused to accept them and fought four martial rulers and challenged their civilian leaders if they went overboard in trying to eliminate dissent.

The people of Pakistan want to be respected. They want their diverse opinions to be respected. They want their rights to be realised. They want their needs to be fulfilled as equal citizens of a state. What we need is a dialogue between combating points of view, a dialogue through democratic means and the encouragement by the state for developing a society where differences of any kind, however major they may be, are not resolved through suppression or violent means. Unless the state allows that space, we will slip into more fragmentation, chaos, brutality and infighting.



The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.