When the state panicked

April 12, 2015

Lessons for everybody from the LUMS episode

When the state panicked

Last week I wrote about how free speech is an issue far more nuanced and difficult than we often appreciate. Add the word ‘Balochistan’ in any political discussion of any relevance in Pakistan and you have two issues testing the state’s patience: speech that makes the powers that be uncomfortable and a separatist movement.

Not the greatest source of joy and comfort for any state or government.

Speech regarding Balochistan has been under threat for a long time now. The state also realises that while muting speech can be difficult, it is far more effective to block information that can lead to more (often disconcerting) speech. A case in point is the lack of independent reporting coming out from Balochistan. No speech is being blocked but access is half the battle when you are interested in speech. By blocking access to information, the state chills speech.

Where need be, tactics like intimidation or a step beyond are also used by states. If you scare enough people, you do not have to block anyone’s speech. And no one likes being followed or a knock on your door in the middle of the night.

States throughout the world know that. They use the threat element -- smartly.

Then there is also the issue of blocking websites that portray sentiments -- right or wrong as they may be -- of Baloch nationalists. Some of the rhetoric is revolutionary, some of it is violent. And most of that is deemed ‘anti-state’.

So, once in a while you see a bunch of people throwing a fit about why the Baloch Hal website is blocked. But since so much else in Pakistan is blocked, everyone moves on. Again the state is smart about its oppressive tactics. You see, allowing some protest and some information (but not too much of either) actually helps a state more than activists with a cause. If some people can protest but not those who make the state truly uncomfortable, the state can keep a convenient check on what is being said -- and also appear to be not completely hostile to its opponents.

Most of the time this works. But then someone will try and spoil the balance.

If anything, it would add to the state’s credibility if it allows events such as the one at LUMS to take place without being seen to be meddling with free speech and information.

LUMS recently organised an event titled "Unsilencing Balochistan". The speakers scheduled to speak were intimately aware of the situation on the ground in Balochistan. And, as expected, this was something that the state deemed as crossing the line. The line, remember, is not there for anyone to see. You will only know when you cross it and will be politely told to step back. Most people will follow such orders. But when a premier university of the country buckles down without a whimper, it raises justifiable concern.

The official email circulated by LUMS, after the cancellation of the event, informed students that the event had been cancelled "on the orders of the government". Which government? We have no idea. Was it the federal or the provincial executive or another arm of the state? Which law was being invoked? And why could LUMS not have allowed the talk and decided to challenge the consequences, if any, in court?

Here is the harsh reality of it all: even allowing the talk at LUMS would not have changed things for Balochistan. But it would have allowed more information and information, in controversial issues, is power. But the state (and all its arms) would do well to remember that it helps to avoid embarrassment wherever possible. There was no need to cancel the talk. People would have moved on. This is Punjab and Pakistan we are talking about. One talk would not have tilted the balance of strategy or power against the state.

Even if the state is bent on being oppressive regarding certain matters, it needs to adapt to the modern age. Most developed states have done that. They allow criticism but then manage things at their end -- be it through digital spying or invasion of privacy. If anything, it would add to the state’s credibility if it allows events such as the one at LUMS to take place without being seen to be meddling with free speech and information.

One thing that we do not think about often enough is what such occurrences spell for Pakistan at the international level. The world, at least most of it, sees Pakistan with a lot of pity. Go to any international conference on human rights and people from Pakistan are not seen as thinkers at the cutting edge of their fields but activists who are heroes against an oppressive state machinery. And this is true of many states, not just Pakistan, with a dismal human rights record. And we as Pakistanis need to change this.

The state can help us all in changing the international narrative about Pakistan -- instead of hitting the panic button each time something makes the state uncomfortable. Furthermore, by becoming more tolerant (and hopefully receptive of dissent) the state can add to its own credibility. We cannot survive in this day and age if we paint ourselves as victims -- and keep thinking that the world does not understand the unique circumstances in this country.

The state needs to open its doors and ears for speech that makes it uncomfortable -- not just because it is a human right but also because it serves the strategic interests of the state, at home and abroad.

Credibility is currency and Pakistan lacks that. And only the state (along with all its arms and agents) can change that.

We would also do well to remember that the "orders of the government" do not necessarily mean the political government. In a state characterised by civil-military imbalance, those worried about ‘anti-state’ activities most often do not hail from political parties. Plus, politicians (in this day and age) often care far too much about public relations to throw their weight behind banning talks at premier universities.

Hence, this instance is a reminder that we need to stand behind civilian politicians if we want to see the executive reformed for the better. And all intelligence agencies that are uncomfortable with more debate about Balochistan need to realise that open debate is not a direct threat or a revolution in itself. Many states exercise control over security issues with much greater sophistication than Pakistan. So there are lessons to learn for everybody from the LUMS episode.

And for what it is worth, LUMS would do well to stand up to "government orders" and if it cannot then it owes it to its students to be more transparent about what happened and why. It will be far less embarrassing than any conceivable alternative.

Moral of the story for everyone: best to avoid embarrassment when you can. And things can always be managed. So do not get your hopes too high. Or too low.

When the state panicked