Sunday May 22, 2022

The need for a new social contract

Ammar Ali Jan explains the circumstances when he was arrested from his home and what happened during his detention at the police station.

February 14, 2019

On the morning of February 9, there was a police raid at my residence. The manner in which the operation was conducted seemed to be designed for a terrorist or a dangerous criminal rather than a professor with dissenting views. My wife kept pleading with the officers to present a warrant or an FIR, or at least give us time to contact lawyers and friends. But, clearly, I was deemed too big a security threat for any legal engagement, and soon both of us were shoved into a police van and whisked away to the police station. The sight of my wife trembling, partly out of fear and anger and partly due to the cold weather, will forever be a reminder for me of the erosion of laws and decency that our society is being subjected to.

Once my interrogation began, it was clear that nearly all the facts that the officers had gathered about me were either misrepresentations of my positions, or simply outright lies. I was being presented as a formal leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement who had designs to undermine national security. Soon the officers realised that I was neither a leader of the PTM nor was I ethnically Pashtun. It was clear that I had no criminal record and the salient feature of the speech I delivered against the killing of Professor Arman Loni was my emphasis on the necessity of non-violence.

The officers were visibly embarrassed, as they could tell that I was arrested and the sanctity of my home was violated without any concrete evidence. When I was presented in court, the judges simply laughed off the concocted FIR registered by the police, and conveyed their regret at the mistreatment meted out to a professor. I am now out on bail.

Yet, while I was able to come out of this ordeal with my head held high, I am forced to wonder what the consequences would have been if I were from the ‘wrong’ class or ethnic background, or if I were a part of any organisation disliked by those in power. Are those citizens simply excluded from all legal protections guaranteed by the constitution? This is not merely a rhetorical question; there are literally thousands of people who happen to be on the wrong side of the divide, and who have lived through the worst kinds of excesses. I witnessed my family panic during the few hours I was in custody. I can only imagine what it feels like to wait for your abducted family members who you fear are somewhere in the zone between life and death.

The crisis that we as a society face is that there are attempts to win the battle of ideas through the barrel of a gun. We are refusing to acknowledge the basic principles of state theory – ie that there is no ontological unity at the heart of any nation-state. Divergence, difference and disagreement are more powerful elements in any social relationship rather than a propensity towards homogeneity. When theorists like Rousseau propose the idea of a ‘social contract’ between the state and the citizens, they do not assume that there already exists an absolute identity between different members of society and the state. In fact, it is only through an arduous process of articulation, negotiation and popular mobilisation that a society can attain a ‘General Will’, one that can represent the interests of the broadest possible sections of society.

Rousseau’s assumption is that there will always be competing visions for society, but there will also be an agreement on the “rules of the game” through which differing points of view are heard. Such a minimal common agreement is necessary if we all are to participate in a democratic public sphere, and communicate our ideas to each other and to the public. The problem arises, however, when particular wills are imposed upon society and presented as the General Will of all, one from which no one is allowed to deviate. Dissent becomes synonymous with rebellion, protest with conspiracy, and ideas with subversion, turning a democratic polity into a Republic of Fear.

The biggest casualty of this imposition is the common minimal agenda, since rules of the game are re-interpreted to wipe out all difference. Consider, for example, the plethora of comments on social media calling upon state authorities to torture me, a clear indication that we have reached a point where violence beyond the purview of law is viewed as a legitimate way of communicating one’s disagreement. This logic of dealing with dissent imagines a proliferation of internal enemies, which leads to a siege mentality. The problem with such a state of affairs, however, is that paranoia increases perpetually, since no state or society can ever wipe out divergence and attain complete homogeneity. We then turn into a factory producing traitors out of our citizens, with all the tragic consequences that such logic might entail for our land.

This need not, however, be our fate forever. Clearly, there is a role for each institution in the country, and one would be naïve to suggest that we could do better without the parliament, judiciary, security apparatus, the media or civil society. The problem arises from the fact that these groups are no longer engaged in any meaningful conversation, and their relations today are either one of indifference or of absolute adversity. Neither is sustainable for too long since, despite our strong disagreements, we are inextricably linked to each other.

We are in dire need of a national dialogue that can stem the rapid erasure of our social contract and renew the distribution of rights and responsibilities across the political and institutional divide. Political parties have been conspicuously absent in the current crisis, and one expects that they will take a lead in initiating this necessary conversation. Our aim has to be to again agree upon a common minimal agenda in which we define the parameters in which we can present our competing visions for Pakistan’s future, without being threatened with violence or intimidation.

It is in the country’s interest to address the genuine grievances of various movements, especially since there is no better guarantee for internal security than the presence of a citizenry that believes it has stakes in the federation. For that, the use of excessive and extra-legal power will have to be reduced and the attitude of viewing all criticisms through the prism of sedition changed.

Perhaps a few lessons I learned over the weekend can indicate how we may be able to overcome bitterness even in a tragic situation. While I have described some of the high-handedness of the police force, there were many moments in which we were able to transcend the aggression of our initial encounter. At some point, a number of officers sat around me to discuss politics, history, religion and philosophy. Soon, a few of the constables were asking for educational advice for their children, something I was very happy to offer. Another bright young officer wanted to continue his studies and asked me how he could apply abroad and study at a university like Cambridge. I encouraged him to pursue his dreams, and that my services were always available for young people like him.

As we departed for the police van, one of the officers said, “Please stay in touch and keep coming back”, to which I replied, “You should never say that to someone under arrest”. We all laughed.

For a brief while, we had forgotten that our relationship was supposed to be premised on hostility. In that moment, the fixity of assigned roles had melted to give way to our shared humanity. It is perhaps this utopian space, indifferent to the accidents of birth and to the overbearing presence of history, which we must periodically occupy if we are to understand others and engage in a collective form of healing.

The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.