The state of dissent

If there can be any hope of salvaging Pakistan and reworking its ideational basis, it is now through universities as spaces of dissent

The state of dissent

What has happened in the last one week is alarming. Several universities and their faculty have been directed to cancel events highlighting important issues in Pakistan. But this is not unprecedented. In Pakistan, there is a history of the state striking down on voices of dissent with brute force.

In the 1950s, this was done with considerable ease after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case made it possible to equate leftist-progressive groups, individuals and movements with treason. This equation of ‘Communism’/‘Pro-Soviet’ with treason legitimised the stifling of critique in the name of countering communist propaganda threatening the integrity of the state.

Before turning to recent events, let me give a historical overview of the developments that have contributed to the shaping of Pakistan as a coercive state intolerant of any kind of dissent. To my mind, Pakistani state, from its inception in 1947, quickly realised the inability of the idea of Pakistan (aka Two Nation Theory) alone to keep the integrity of the state intact. Harping on the exclusivity of Muslim nationhood and the rationale for a separate state to safeguard its interest was good enough to keep the momentum going during the 1940s. But it dissipated immediately after the initial euphoria of achieving a new state gave way to realities of burgeoning ethnic differences.

While Pakistan movement during the 1940s elicited massive popular support, the Muslim League, as such, lacked the political character and potential for grass root mobilisation. It was never meant to be a mass-based political organisation. Unlike Congress, it remained loyal to British colonial interests for a long time, even during the Second World War. In the brief period that it became a popular movement during the 1940s, the driving force was the charismatic leadership of Jinnah and the agenda he espoused.

Following partition, it was no longer possible to sustain the euphoria of Muslim nationhood as ethnic identities resurfaced with considerable intensity. The abstract idea of being Muslim was not a reasonable explanation for the Sindhis to allow the migrants from UP to take over businesses and government positions in Karachi, or to ‘sacrifice’ their largest metropolis for the greater good of the country. The dismissal of Congress ministry in NWFP, the general resentment of Bacha Khan and his aides towards Pakistan, military operation in Balochistan and the question of Bengali language were some of the issues which quickly exposed the hollowness of the idea of Pakistan based on an imagined unity of the Muslim qaum in India shot through class, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian differences.

It was, therefore, evident to those running the Pakistani state that it was only through coercion and ideological indoctrination that such disparate ethnic groups could be kept together. The propagation of Islam as central to the idea of Pakistan gained momentum. Although the rhetoric of an Islamic state went against the grain of the westernised ruling elite, it had to resort to it for creating a sense of unity by emphasising the commonality of religious bond. This, in turn, created its own set of problems as it required determining the Islamic content of the constitution and demands for conforming it with the majoritarian Sunni belief.

The idea of holding things together through coercion is not working out. It is no longer feasible. But the alternative reimagining of Pakistan that could have replaced it has not been allowed to happen.

As for a coercive strategy, things were not too difficult as Pakistan had inherited the colonial legal system and security apparatus, invoking the law of sedition, threatening dissent with confinement and arrest. In due course, it drafted new laws, even more draconian in their content, to muzzle voices of dissent. From the Public Safety Ordinance of 1949 to curtail the freedom of press, Public Representatives Disqualification Act (PRODA) to keep political leaders in line, and blatant suppression in the name of putting down a ‘communist conspiracy’ to overthrow the government in 1952, the history of Pakistan is replete with instances -- even before the imposition of direct military rule -- which show a concerted effort aimed at stymying the growth of representative democracy in Pakistan.

All these efforts point towards thwarting any attempt at establishing a political consensus, achieved through a democratic process, about the future of Pakistan’s polity. While in the first few years power was exercised by the likes of Liaquat Ali Khan, it was soon passed on to bureaucrats/technocrats like Ch. Muhammad Ali, Ghulam Muhammad and Iskandar Mirza. For a brief period, the military-bureaucratic nexus became dominant, but gradually, the Pakistani state and its ‘Establishment’ became an institutionalised power in all spheres of Pakistan’s politics and economy.

This Establishment remains paranoid about the possibility of a representative democracy in Pakistan. In the absence of the failure of an abstract unity of Islam as a basis of Pakistani nationhood, it has run the country on the technology of surveillance and suppressive modes of governance. This paranoia about the absence of a unifying ideational force was further reinforced by the breakup of Pakistan when ‘majority Muslims’ seceded from a state established in the name of Muslims of South Asia.


While I have argued that the euphoria of 1940s masked internal contradictions and lack of unity, it does not mean that Pakistan could not have developed a consensual basis for a federal polity, equitable distribution of resources and democratic governance. The reason it couldn’t is not that there was no possibility of such an ideational basis, but because the Establishment was too paranoid to even consider the possibility of this to happen. It repeatedly intervened -- in the form of illegal detentions, military operations, dubious judicial convictions and so on -- to ensure unity through coercive means.

Yet, the suppressive tactics of the state did not obliterate the possibility of developing a political consensus during different periods of Pakistan’s history. Other than the arm-twisting tactics used to enforce compliance -- such as the case with One Unit legislation of 1955 whereby the Provinces of West Pakistan were forced to merge into a single geographical and political entity -- there were such occasions as the constitution of 1973 which was unanimously agreed upon. In this way, the constitution of Pakistan was the only consensus document in the history of Pakistan. The constitution of 1956 was drafted by an assembly which was largely unrepresentative and had also a sizeable opposition which voted against its adoption. The constitution of 1962 was superimposed by the military dictator General Ayub Khan and was not drafted by an elected assembly.

The possibilities of such a consensus emerging in the present context have largely declined. Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, the brain behind the constitution of 1973, was later alienated with the idea of a federation he had pleaded passionately before the assembly. He became convinced that a confederation was more suited to the peculiar situation of Pakistan. This radical shift in his ideas was largely shaped by the events that followed which saw the promulgation of martial law in the country and the hanging of Pakistan’s popular leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

In recent years, the Charter of Democracy signed between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in 2006 is an example of yet another attempt by political forces to move forward despite all odds and work towards the possibility of consensual democracy to sustain the federation. There can be other examples as well in which political forces have tried to reach out beyond ethnic and territorial lines to build coalitions and opposition alliances. Such attempts have not been able to sustain themselves for too long because of the coercive arm-twisting of Pakistan’s Establishment. This has resulted in a situation whereby Pakistan’s electoral mandate is dangerously fractured.

Also, repeated failures and state oppression has alienated ethno-nationalist groups and made it increasingly difficult for them to work towards the strengthening of a federation which they see as oppressive, dominated by a specific class and ethnicity, and justly identifiable as the cause of a lot of oppression and bloodshed. When they do come together now, it is only under considerable amount of pressure or a tragedy of horrendous proportions -- such as achieving political consensus for military courts after the APS incident of Peshawar in 2014.

The problem is that Pakistan has been run for too long with coercive tactics and the political process has been rendered so dysfunctional that the state can no longer be held together without the use of force. And yet, the continued use of force itself is no guarantee that the state would survive. In this scenario, any voice raised for democracy or recognition of rights becomes a threat as it directly challenges the basis on which the state is operating, i.e. coercion and violence.


While political forces, despite numerous failures, frustrations and state oppression, have continued to fight for a representative form of government, the Pakistani academia has joined this battle as never before. For a long period, Pakistani universities were intellectually barren as the state systematically discouraged creative and critical thinking on campuses.

Decades of persecution of ‘Communists’ and official support for ‘Jamaatis’ ensured that serious academics shunned public sector universities, and mostly relocated to academic institutions in Europe and America.

What has changed in the recent past is the emergence of a new critical mass of academics, scholars and students. Since early 2000s, there has been a sizeable influx of graduates from European and American universities, teaching in Pakistan, engaging with critical issues faced by the society and writing about them. This knowledge production has helped create a reading and critical public in the last decade which is increasingly vocal about its vision of a progressive Pakistan and strives towards transforming it.

For a while, this critical mass was tolerated, and even encouraged, as their voice was valued for helping salvage Pakistan from the verge of collapse at the high point of Taliban-led terrorism across the country. But now that the law and order situation has improved, the dissenting voice of academia is jarring to the ears of the Establishment. This is because the academia does understand that the apparent ‘peace’ is misleading and that there are deeper structural issues to be addressed, which were responsible for turning Pakistan into a veritable hell in the first place and which, if left unaddressed, would create a similar, or even worse, situation in the years to come.

In particular, Pakistani academics have pointed out the futility of prolonged hostilities with India and the use of proxy war as a strategy for undermining the arch rival in a bid to maintain the regional balance of power.

Ammar Jan’s case is the most obvious example. A graduate from Texas Austin, Jan did a Masters from Chicago and PhD from Cambridge University. An intellectual historian of immense potential, Jan made a choice of working at a public sector university. His choice baffled many, especially the men from intelligence agencies who frequently quizzed him. They were suspicious of his motives: what was a bright young man doing in Pakistan? And that too in a public sector university? They were concerned because Jan was holding reading groups, encouraging students to think critically and making them politically conscious about their rights as students and as citizens of Pakistan. Against this charge sheet, his contract was cancelled by Government College University (GCU) Lahore which proudly carries Kant’s dictum of Courage to Know as its official motto. The same happened in case of Punjab University which terminated his contract ostensibly because he had failed to submit a joining report within a month of his hiring.

His firing from PU coincided with the sudden cancellation of the event at Habib University. It was a panel discussion on the state of the federation in Pakistan. LUMS, too, postponed a vigil in the memory of Mashal Khan.

All this clearly shows that the idea of holding things together through coercion is not working out. It is no longer feasible. But the alternative reimagining of Pakistan that could have replaced it has not been allowed to happen. The result is that the ability of the political process to create a consensual reshaping of Pakistan and generate legitimacy of the state is dangerously lacking. In this scenario, the only ray of hope is people like Ammar Jan who are trying to create universities as sites of knowledge production, dialogue, engagement and critique. This new critical mass of Pakistani scholars, academics and students is vocal and active, but under a lot of threat and scrutiny.

If there can be any hope of salvaging Pakistan and reworking its ideational basis, it is now through universities as spaces of dissent.

The state of dissent