The Pakistani context

Our master narrative and understanding of national interest has tended to stifle dissent of any kind

The Pakistani context


issent, in essence, is the disagreement that people express publicly against hegemonic institutions that govern their patterns of life. People have always disagreed; and it has always been the beauty of human intellect that it questions orthodox ideas as well as exploitative institutions and their ways of governance. In liberal democratic societies, questioning is not frowned upon, nor is critical enquiry stifled. Rather, people’s right to question is protected, garnered and respected. In modern societies, the right to dissent is part of the citizens’ right to free speech.

In the operational sphere, what matters is the relationship between the people as citizens and what they have created jointly i.e., the state. Public space is an arena for the production and dissemination of discourse that takes place everywhere outside home. Hence, various terms of perceived common good such as ‘public opinion,’ ‘public conscience,’ ‘public responsibility,’ and ‘public attitude’ have gained currency. In Pakistan, public space has always asserted itself, particularly after governments were civilianised through elections (following military takeovers).

Dissent is expressed in many forms including debates in legislative bodies, election campaigns and electoral dynamics, legal arenas, street politics or protests—peaceful as well as violent. It is also expressed through media and newspaper writings, through art and poetry. In Pakistan, legislative bodies bring people and the state closer to each other. The state operates in English language and through legal-institutional framework introduced by the modernising agency of the colonial state and carried on by the successor state apparatus. On the other hand, the people represent public awakening rooted in primordial caste, creed and class identities, aspiring to share power and resources through political means.

The public space provided by the legal framework was born out of the British colonial state out of which people’s dissatisfaction and disgust against the ‘system’ was expressed in a nationalist movement. It was in this context that street politics emerged as a place for extraordinary political participation. Moreover, the ‘crowd’ is understood as a source generating strength in the public arena to change the course of events as was the case during the independence movement. The mass agitation that brought down the Unionist government in 1947 in the Punjab can be cited as an example of the potential of crowd as a mechanism for the expression of dissent.

Electoral dynamics play a very important role and provide a visible, activist and mobilising role as a public sphere arena where different kinds of political dissent are expressed. In the post-partition period, examples of nationwide demonstration which became successful in changing the status quo are the movements against Ayub (1968-1969), Bhutto (1977), Zia (1983) and Musharraf (2007-2008). Due to successive military takeovers, the parliament did not evolve into the main platform of conflict resolution. The military regimes always tried to suppress public dissent.

The Pakistani context

The 1958 military coup was an attempt to preempt the expected coming into power of Bengali leader Husain Shaheed Sohrawardi in the elections scheduled for 1959. Yahya’s coup resulted from the rejection of Ayub’s system by massive public demonstration in 1968-69. Zia imposed martial law following the perceived mass rejection of Bhutto’s electoral victory in 1977 elections. Every time there was a military takeover, it tried to muzzle the voice of the people that had facilitated its coming into power. Even the electoral choice of the people was perceived and suppressed as inimical to national interests.

Historically, the political class in the provincial capitals and the marginalised ethnic and linguistic identities have led political dissent in the country. The Pakistani master narrative and a peculiar idea of national interest have tended to stifle dissent, whether political, social, economic, religious or cultural. It was this tendency that branded leftist groups such as the Communist Party of Pakistan, Azad Pakistan Party, Mazdoor Kisan Party and Pakistan Socialist Party as pawns in the hands of the ‘enemy’ powers. Thus, the voices raised by such political forces and their leaders were met by repression by the state authorities.

The Bengali nationalist students expressing their dissent against the tunnel vision of the state which tried to blanket all ethnic nationalities into its straightjacketed version of nationalism, were killed on February 22, 1951 because they had their own vision about national language(s) of Pakistan. Likewise, the labour unionists, staging strike demonstrations, faced bullets in Karachi in 1972. The peasant movements in Toba Tek Singh in 1969, in Hashtnagar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 1972 and in Okara during 2010-2017 also met state repression. In all these cases, a political dialogue could not take place because the state authorities viewed dissent and disagreement as animosity.

Public demonstrations have sought to address economic, religious and foreign policy issues. For instance, high prices of commodities such as petrol, wheat, sugar or vegetables and shortage of gas and electricity have often led to street protests. The Babri Masjid demolition and Gujarat riots in India; provocative cartoons published in Denmark and France; Israel’s bombardment of Hamas and Gaza; and blasphemy laws have provided instances for public dissent on religious and foreign policy issues.

When Indian parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, protests erupted at multiple places against this discriminatory law. The new law was considered a blow to the Indian constitutional values of equality and religious non-discrimination. New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, where women and children protested against the controversial law, as well as Jamia Millia and the JNU, where students and intellectuals expressed dissent, became sites of interest. The dissenters sang poems by Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Habib Jalib, both celebrated Pakistani poets who used poetry to express political dissent. In addition to Sufi poets of nearly all languages in Pakistan, Ustad Daman and Ahmad Faraz made it to the list of glorious names who used poetry to guide resistance.

The writer heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at His X handle: @AbrarZahoor1

The Pakistani context