Sunday, January 15, 2017

Mis ing?

Following is the full version of the article that appeared on The New on Sunday today, January 15th, 2017. The TNS article can be accessed here

In the past one week three bloggers went missing in Pakistan. No one knows their crime but everyone knows why they have disappeared. Reports are pouring in that there might be several other bloggers and activists who are missing. Those missing seem to share a few common characters. They either ran blogs or contributed to ones that criticised religious bigotry and the security establishment’s heavy involvement in the state’s political affairs. Their political activism seemed to focus on spreading progressive or liberal ideas and a desire to make Pakistan a more democratic state where its institutions are accountable to its elected civilian representatives. How do we make sense of their disappearance? For the longest time the liberals and the progressives thought that the state’s security apparatus won’t touch them simply because they didn’t count too much. That remains true today. One can see the same 20 faces that have appeared in every protest organised by the liberals and the left wing political groups in this country. This remains true for protests being organised in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. You see the same faces appear in front of the press club; chanting slogans and making the same kind of demands. Nobody bothers to stop and ask them why they are there. Nobody cusses at them while sitting in the car because they are not even a traffic nuisance. Why would the security agencies pick someone of this ilk? What danger these individuals posed to the national security apparatus that warranted such an action?

News report suggest that these were vocal critics of the military and the ISI. Some people suggest that they may have criticized CPEC as well. They did all that through various social media platforms (Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, etc.) with some really odd sounding names like Bhensa, Molbi, or Mochi. We don’t know who took them seriously other than the people who have picked them up. I must admit that I only searched them online after these people went missing. I have seen Bhensa memes floating around the internet; some of them were funny others not quite so. But who really cared? Does the list include people who liked them? Or shared them? Or commented under them? Or tagged their friends? Are they all suspects? We wouldn’t know. We do know one thing for sure, however. Those who abducted them got really upset by their satire. This is not the first time progressive activists have been picked up. Nor has it been the first time people have disappeared mysteriously in this country. Balochistan has seen hundreds and thousands of its activist gone mysteriously missing in the past 10 years. Two weeks ago, the Human Rights ministry admitted that 936 people have been found dead in Balochistan in the past five years. In a ‘normal’ country this would have been enough for at least the minister to resign. Or enough to order a high-powered committee to do a serious investigation of who did this and why. But we know that nothing like that would ever happen here so why bother with all such detail.

Analysts suspect that these activists, whether four or five in number, were picked up by the security establishment. One can say with some level of confidence that these people were picked up because the security establishment does not like being criticized. It would take it to an extent but the moment it feels that the criticism is becoming ‘popular’ or commonplace it swiftly moves in to curb it. Why do certain people criticize this security establishment so much? And why can’t it seem to grow a thicker skin? In the past 70 years of the sordid history of this county, the security establishment has single handedly achieved the status of the most obdurate institution that keeps this country from developing into a functioning democracy of any kind. What kind of influence has it had on Pakistan’s polity?

Pakistan’s security establishment faces one big challenge in ruling over Pakistan (whether directly or indirectly). How to homogenize a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural society? This has been the bane of their existence from day one. How do you make everybody the same when everybody is different? It’s important to do that as a homogenized society is easy to mould in its own ideological leanings. Islam became an easy tool to do that. Yet it would be unfair to say that military is the only one that has used Islam. Politicians have also used it to pander to their voters. But where the latter’s use of religion is only to plead their case to a conservative vote bank, military’s use of the religion has turned out to be more sinister. It institutionalized it within the state structure and used it to expand its writ. It also then used it to advance its foreign policy objectives by establishing and training jihadi organizations. Whenever necessary it has not shied from using these jihadi organization to tame political opponents. Religion is an easy tool for homogenization if that is the desired outcome. A homogenized society is easier to control by dictatorial forces because you have just scared away all the dissent. Once you get the monopoly over setting both the agenda and the discourse, it’s only a matter of time before public opinion gets shaped a certain way. Our security establishment does not like any challenges to such agenda setting power. Even when it comes in the form of social media pages that identify themselves as Bhensa, Molbi, or Mochi.  
The military’s world view has been unable to see beyond its own narrow interests. It sees plurality of opinion as a problem. It wants to see only a certain kind of Islam that accepts its obsession with India, USA, and all others who are constantly conspiring against its rise to the top of the world. It wants everybody to have the same interpretation of Pakistan’s history. There cannot be any questioning of Jinnah or Iqbal or any of the other great leaders that did or did not help form this country. Some people just out of sheer boredom or curiosity want to ask; but why?  It finds it distressing that people don’t want to readily accept this. On top of all this, it also wants to keep a big chunk of resources to itself and doesn’t want any one questioning it. It has an economic empire, which, among other assets, consists of empty residential plots to be sold to civilians desirous of nice residential plots. So, it needs nice civilians who desire only nice plots developed by various DHA’s that keep popping up like social media pages criticizing military’s desire to produce residential plots. And then it wants to keep expanding its economic empire and influence over the country’s economy. It has recently discovered that something like CPEC can also be used to homogenize the country and expand its own business empire at the same time. So, it is now in a tug of war with the government to claim its stake in the supposed economic benefits of CPEC. So much so that it has agreed to raise a whole division to protect this route at all costs. It also doesn’t like anybody criticizing its role in this project because it should be obvious to everyone that this project will transform Pakistan completely into an economic power house; no questions asked. Its high ranking serving officers address public gathering and openly invite India to join this fantastic project and benefit from it. They can also pronounce that Pakistan’s destiny is to be an Islamic welfare state and this is what our enemies want to deny us. Pray tell, who asked for your opinion on this matter in the first place? But questions like these are – especially if they accompany a meme with a Bhensa in the corner – forbidden because they challenge the national interest, which is defined and protected by them. So, the security establishment eventually picks up or harasses all those who try to criticize it persistently; particularly when the criticism focuses on the its desire to consistently define and protect the national interest.
Is there any way to reform this military? Well, I think, yes there is. But that path is full of several social media pages with memes with Bhesnas or Molbis or Mochis in the corner. That path also consists of writing consistently against the security establishment’s desire to set, define, and defend the national interest. That right belongs to the people of this country alone and no one can take it away from them. So, voice your criticism openly and without fear. Do not hide in fear. The security establishment has totalitarian pretentions; it neither has the capacity or the will to abduct all of us when we speak with one voice. And for this reason alone, the absence of Salman Haider and others should only strengthen our resolve to fight for a pluralist, progressive, and a democratic Pakistan.

Fahd Ali is assistant professor of Social Development and Policy at Habib University, Karachi. He can be reached at and @alifdaru on Twitter.

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