Why suppressing dissent is a bad idea

Updated 01 Apr, 2019 04:20pm

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Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

It is not hard to kill a poet. You can use poisonous substances, bodies of water, unrequited love, five children, housework, or a vicious review. It is much harder to make a poet live. How blessed we are to be a largely illiterate but very literary country; in the days since Pashto poet and professor of literature Ibrahim Arman Luni died, our security state has done all it can to keep him alive in people’s imaginations.

Luni, a core committee member of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), died in Loralai after a protest on February 2, 2019. His supporters alleged police brutality. Parliamentarians affiliated to PTM were not allowed to attend his funeral in Balochistan. In the aftermath of his death, those asking why a poet was dead were arrested. The more privileged ones have since been released; others remain behind bars.

Recent attempts to ‘control the narrative’ around PTM are just the latest episodes in a cycle that began shortly after the creation of Pakistan: the insistence that the only story is the one the security state is telling. Not content to displace people from land, the security state, through censorship, has tried to make dissenting citizens become refugees from language itself.

When censorship has failed, there have been cover-ups, hobbled commissions, abductions and mysterious deaths. Recently, laws rubber stamped by our myopic parliamentarians, such as the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (which opens an umbrella of criminality over most expression) have been used to silence and intimidate. Two brothers in Multan protesting the death of Arman Luni were also booked under Section 290 of the Pakistan Penal Code which provides “punishment for public nuisance in cases not otherwise provided for”. Newspapers that do not toe the lines laid down have had their copies confiscated or their distribution blocked, and they have been financially pressured into running curated stories.

This is not just the opinion of ‘ghaddars’ or ‘foreign agencies’: the Supreme Court’s recent judgment on the Faizabad sit-in bears witness to law enforcement agencies and security agencies exceeding their mandates in “unconstitutional and illegal” ways and reminds them that they are paid to serve citizens and not the other way around.

Beyond the unconstitutional and illegal intrusions into the fundamental rights of Pakistani citizens, the crackdown on the coverage of PTM over the last year has also raised the issue of competence. Censoring a patch of text from papers available online, as was done with Manzoor Pashteen’s op-ed in The New York Times recently, suggests a profound lack of understanding of contemporary life. We live in an irrevocably connected world. To think that information can be withheld or erased from public consciousness implies a failure to adapt. The tragic killing of a family by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in Sahiwal in January this year illustrates why: the official story did not change because of a foreign agenda; the story changed because someone took a video on their cell phone. It also illustrates why Twitter has recorded a surge in requests to block accounts.

It is sad, but unsurprising, that social media is swamped with Pakistanis happy to troll other Pakistanis who want transparency and an end to abductions, extrajudicial killings or military courts. In politics, as in our families, most of us think daddy knows best. The paternalistic philosophy applied to an entire society over time results in the infantilisation of large swathes of the population. The imposed hierarchy in which the interests of some remain permanently foregrounded has been internalised; pait main daarhi (a beard hidden in one’s abdomen) should be updated to khopri main dictator (a dictatorial mindset).

But that is one side of the picture. The other side is that resistance to a destructive way of being has also been a constant in the history of our young country. Concerns about displacement from land, language and civilian ownership of collective identity are indigenous ones. Perhaps what makes PTM especially dangerous is the fact that it has the numbers and the capacity to grow. If it continues its adherence to non-violence and widens its inclusivity across gender and ethnicity, it has the potential to spark a full-blown civil rights movement.

We should all mourn a professor of literature in a society where guns are revered and words are outlawed. We should all challenge those who lack the imagination to see it as anything other than Good Poet (Iqbal) and Bad Poet (Luni).


The writer is the author of the novels Tunnel Vision, Survival Tips for Lunatics, Daddy's Boy and Rafina.


This was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print