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Opinion

December 24, 2017

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Political prisoners, not missing persons

The news of the missing bloggers at the beginning of 2017 sent shockwaves through activist circles. No one was sure why sections of the state would abduct citizens for the ‘crime’ of posting satirical material online. After the recovery of the missing bloggers (against whom not a single charge was proven), many thought that this was an exceptional act, and that better sense would prevail in the corridors of power since Pakistan is already facing too many problems for us to create more.

While most activists in urban centres moved on from the events in January, menacing whispers were recurrent about abductions from Balochistan and Sindh, sites where the technique of ‘disappearing’ people has allegedly been mastered. While the suffering of these ‘peripheral’ regions was ignored throughout the year, the recent abduction of Raza Khan from Lahore has reopened old wounds, ensuring that the year ends in the same climate of fear in which it began.

It is now an accepted fact among political activists, journalists and judges that abductions have become an integral technique of governance by sections of the state. The recent chilling statements by the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court – in which he, perhaps satirically, suggested that even he might join the list of ‘missing persons’ – shows not only how sovereignty is dangerously fragmented in Pakistan, but also how the fear of going ‘missing’ is becoming pervasive in the national psyche.

The question is: why does the state feel the need to use such overtly illegal methods to control dissent in the country? If the purpose was to use excessive force on critics, then our police stations, let alone jails, are enough for torturing citizens without many legal hurdles. With draconian anti-terror laws at its disposal, arresting critics arbitrarily is also no longer a problem for the powers that be. Why then use a method that causes so much international embarrassment, while apparently not providing any particular benefit for controlling populations?

One can seek a partial answer by tracing the history of punishment and resistance in the modern Subcontinent. Michel Foucault, a French sociologist, is considered an expert on punishment in the modern era. Foucault argues that the extensive prison system is a modern invention that aimed to dole out more ‘humane’ punishments as compared to the spectacular forms of violence prevalent in the medieval era. Yet, behind this garb of humanism, there was a more sinister project; jails were the first sites to experiment with techniques of surveillance and control on large populations to ‘reform’ them in order to prepare them to enter industrial society as docile, obedient subjects. Foucault shows how the techniques mastered in jails were later transposed onto other institutions of society, including schools, hospitals, and bureaucracies, thus producing what he called a ‘disciplinary society’, creating a paradoxical situation in which citizens appeared to voluntarily opt for their own servitude.

The key feature of this ‘invisible’ form of power was that it created a hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ citizens. Those undergoing ‘reform’ behind the four walls of the prison were the bad guys, while those integrated into society were sufficiently compliant and obedient to be considered respectable citizens. In other words, prison populations became the opposite of civilised society.

This schema underwent a radical transformation in the Subcontinent. The modern prison system was introduced by the British for the familiar reasons of creating a regulated society. The onset of the anti-colonial movement, however, changed the meaning of what it meant to be imprisoned. Activists and leaders fighting colonial rule would often voluntarily court arrests as a public show of defiance. The intention was not only to violate colonial law, but to turn the feared site of the jail into a space of resistance. By the late 1920s, anyone thrown into prisons by colonial authorities would, rather than invoking rebuke from society, win the overwhelming admiration of the general public. Thus arose the almost mythical figure of the political prisoner in the Subcontinent, one whose refusal to submit to power under bodily pain at once reflected the general suffering prevalent in society and the latent desire of the public to revolt against the system.

It is for this reason that even today in Pakistan and India, going to prison is not a sign of embarrassment but rather almost a rite of passage for any political figure hoping to speak in the name of the people. While authoritarian regimes could confine the bodies of their opponents within the space of the jail, they often could not prevent the proliferation of the myth surrounding political prisoners, turning prisons into sites for the production of political celebrities.

It is for this reason that sending critics to jails is not useful in the long run, since the blowback in terms of public response is often negative. Instead, by deploying the technique of making people go ‘missing’, those in power aim to deny precisely this public hearing accorded to political prisoners. Political prisoners are often able to use their bodily suffering and writing as a means of engaging the public and gaining their sympathy. Yet, when activists go ‘missing’ not only is their body made invisible, but their side of the story also remains missing in the narrative surrounding them. This is what we witnessed with the missing bloggers, who were accused of multiple crimes, but the public were denied the point of view of the bloggers themselves.

Second, the state is able to disavow any direct responsibility for the episode. By doing so, it does not directly enter into a political debate on the merits or demerits of the arguments of its critics, securing itself as a neutral entity and obfuscating the political content of the disappearances. Therefore, by blurring any clear demarcations, the state is able to circumvent a problem that haunted colonial authorities; how to punish critics without turning them into celebrities. The answer is: by trying to make the state absent from the public discourse, and through this absence assert a menacing presence by signalling to activists what silent ignominy awaits them if they do not mend their ways.

It must be insisted that missing persons are political prisoners, because they are being held in captivity for no reason other than the political views they espouse. Apart from narrating the point of view of the abductees, this will demonstrate the increasing level of political repression in the country, which has been made invisible since dissenting voices are today detained either as ‘missing persons’ or as ‘terror suspects’. In both cases, the voice and the humanity of the victims is denied, depriving them of a public hearing and preventing their relatives and sympathisers any public display of mourning. Yet, if we do not count such individuals as political prisoners, then we do not find any notable political prisoner in the country, giving the misleading impression that we are passing through one of the most politically free eras of our history.

This is crucial if we want a transparent process of accountability and a genuinely free public sphere. This will also help develop the necessary intensity for a struggle which goes beyond the realm of enforced disappearances and touches at the heart of power by raising issues around law, freedom of speech and accountability. A progressive political transformation depends upon the inalienable right to dissent, which is under an all-out attack.

Despite the long, dark night of fear and persecution, and in the face of new techniques of control, those fighting for dignity, equality and justice today must remain firm in their support for contemporary political prisoners. They should remember the Persian proverb: “This too shall pass.”

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and a lecturer at the Government College University, Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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