No Revolution for Pakistan

Source: Seattle Times

Do you recall the Arab Spring? It only happened within a period of last five years and even though it has largely died down, it has told us something very interesting about seemingly politically dormant populations. People can rise against oppressive governments, as they have so many times in history.

However, such instances among the population of the Indian subcontinent are very few in history, especially under a foreign colonial rule. Of course, there have been great exceptions with some great local warriors and insurgent empires like the Marathas rising against far larger forces. Resistance has not been absent. But largely, you will find little resistance until the failed War of Independence against the British in 1857, ignited for the perfectly wrong reasons, and finally the Swaraj movement under the unusual leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.

Pakistan, separated from its Indian motherland, has been a breeding ground for political chaos. One so political. Pakistan, the Western part to be precise, has seen great political turmoil in its 70 years but no revolution. Of course, the Eastern Pakistan, which let’s face it, had no connection whatsoever to its eastern and clearly more prejudiced wing, had nothing to do with it anyway. Bengal had been at the forefront of the independence movement and with a very predominantly progressive political culture, it was only a matter of time that it would part ways with the regression of the socially conservative and theocratic Western Pakistan made up of Punjabis, Sindhis, Kashmiris, and immigrants from Delhi, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.

Pakistan immediately fell under oligarchical bureaucratic dictatorship. Forget the old battered revolutionaries locked away. That romance is over. For so much micropolitical storms in its teacup, the beverage of democracy was never eventually brewed. The founding fathers, who stayed true to most and betrayed in the eyes of a few, strangled the very idea by injecting theocracy in the framework of the Constitution. A discriminatory document that no self-respecting republican could stand behind. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah apparently died too soon and too weak to have been a decisive factor over it, ironically and inadvertently becoming responsible for a theocracy for a man who embodied secular lifestyle and values.

With the context of this horrifying background and ruled by a draconian army that is apparently the best fit for the mix, the people of Pakistan live disconnected, indifferent lives. They acknowledge, but choose to ignore, the evils of their society. They recognize the need to hang people in public squares but never take any action. They frequently kill women for honor but never resist when their freedom is trampled on.

To add insult to injury, Pakistani not-so-private propaganda channels are loaded with state-backed faux revolutionaries to provoke people to throw out any remnants of elected office in the country, but never see any movement among the hibernating masses. Compare that to the Tunisian democratic revolution, then a lot more has happened in Pakistan to hurt the public sentiment to warrant one.

From the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to May 12 killings and Model Town massacre and from Panama Verdict and Judicial coups to allegedly systematic murder and rape of little children, nothing has inspired such a movement even though supposedly building public anger and frustration.

People continue to move on. So despite all the apparent injustice, widespread abuse, and intolerable discrimination and torture, people are opting to stay put. They have accepted their condition as a natural order, a will of God, and do not want to disturb the imperfect equilibrium that at least keeps life going.

But can you really blame them? They, the illiterate and naive people, have seen what revolution brings to those who seek it. Misery, persecution, and a whole new level of slavery and dangers. Nobody wants to give up their relative freedoms away, even those under a mildly draconian regime of thugs. There is still a lot to lose than to gain perhaps from such a misadventure. The loss of the individual is not the loss of society.

Nevertheless, you are compelled to ask when is it going to be enough. How many rapes and murders of the daughters of the poor and abandoned will it take for the people to be outraged enough? How many plots of land will be taken away from the poor and helpless before the people say no more? You wonder how much is it going to take.

And what will that outrage precisely be? A civil outrage fueling vigils? Is that enough? And if it isn’t what did the rioters in London, the arsonists in Missouri, and the miscreants in Islamabad achieve? Did they achieve revolution? Most certainly not. But were able to make life miserable for other common people like them, property owners or not. That same order of life those common people go to great lengths to preserve. Nobody really likes a radical, until he becomes socially acceptable.

When do you push the boundaries far enough to take a riot to revolution? To take political slogans to civil war? Why did the Egyptians feel compelled to overthrow Mobarek and why did they give up at Al-Sisi? Why did the Persians feel content with ousting the Shah and not the Ayatollah? Why settle with one oppressor, one abuser, and one tyrant and not the other? Are these people and this land worth sacrificing your life for? And if you wait for enough people to join in order to jump, do they ever get to?

These are the questions we are not willing to ponder, let alone even begin to think to answer. At least not now. We must get on with our lives because you only live once.

There is no revolution for Pakistan.

Islamabad Event on Freedom of Expression for Civil Liberties in Pakistan

Bytes for All, an organization dedicated to promoting internet freedom and free speech in Pakistan, organized an event in Islamabad on Freedom of Expression and Civil Liberties on September 19, 2013. The event featured participants from all over Pakistan, including the FATA.

The event included three sessions, focusing on hate speech, fair trial and surveillance in relation to freedom of expression. The introductory speech was made by author and journalist Mohammed Hanif, who primarily spoke about the human rights violations in Baluchistan by Pakistani security agencies. Hanif revealed that no less than 529 people have died over 5 years in such incidents, which involved torturing and mutilating the victim’s bodies beyond recognition.

Hanif also served as a panelist for the first session, along with Taha Siddiqui, Murtaza Solangi and Sabeen Mahmud. that focused on hate speech. The session was moderated by the flamboyant Ajmal Jami. Taha Siddiqui, journalist, presented the findings of his research report on the presence of terrorist organizations on the internet and the hate speech they propagate to find recruits. A participant objected that the report focused on only a certain kind of groups, which sounded reasonable, but apparently Taha’s focus was on emphasizing that terrorist groups were operating unabated in the country with a clear online presence and that authorities were not moving a muscle in response while banning other websites instead.

Murtaza Solangi, broadcasting journalist, defined hate speech for the audience and said that you should not impose your beliefs on others for harming them. What he did not explain was what if that was precisely what the beliefs required you to do. Mohammed Hanif was the one who actually briefly touched that aspect, emphasizing that you would not be able to take the poor people’s God away from them and that it simply would not happen. He also mentioned that it is hardly any use complaining about extremist militant groups if the state itself handpicked a community, namely the Ahmedis, during a democratically elected government and declared them literal outcasts by legalizing their expulsion from Islam and inviting hatred against them.

Sabeen Mahmud, the Karachi based founder of T2F, presented the hate messages and death threats, quantified on the Nafrat Aggregator, that she received in response to her controversial pro Valentine’s Day campaign in response to Tanzeem-e-Islami’s campaign of forbidding people to celebrate the holiday using Koranic verses and Hadiths. She offered a personal viewpoint on how it is like to be threatened with groups invading your free speech and right to life in that manner. The shocking aspect remains that most people in Pakistan would consider it their religious duty to violate other’s freedom and security like that, even though in this case, she had hardly done anything that can be considered wrong. I personally fully support her actions and consider her a free speech hero.

The second session focused on Fair Trial and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rabia Mehmood. The panelists included the eloquent Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and columnist, Safdar Dawar, a FATA based journalist and journalist Mahvish Ahmed. The most important point was made by Ijaz that legal jurisdictions and continued debate about fair trial, surveillance and privacy violations are necessary and will eventually make a continual but certain difference for the better. The session also focused on the implications of the vagueness of legal definitions. Dawar emphasized how FATA was not ruled by any court of law and that there was no way to address violations of civil liberties there. Mahvish Ahmed raised the importance of political solutions.

The third session focused on Surveillance and its impact on free speech, moderated by Rahma Mian. The panelists included Abid Imam, a lawyer and academic, Asim Zafar Khan, a technology adviser to the government,  Shahzad Ahmed of Bytes for All and Fahd Deshmukh, a technology expert and activist. The crux of the session was that surveillance was inevitable, so staying ahead of the technology curve is all that people could do. Abid Imam pointed out that avoiding surveillance is not even a declared fundamental human right in the law, and not one that states are likely to grant. Shahzad Ahmed spoke passionately about the need to reclaim the right of privacy and to raise voice against growing state surveillance.

The good thing about such events is that introduces a lot of people to the very idea of freedom of expression, which is pretty much alien to a society like Pakistan where questioning is discouraged and you are mostly required to practice self-censorship right from your childhood. However, when you hear about an event focusing on freedom of expression, you prepare yourself to reflect on a more academic discussion about the subject, especially focusing on the subtleties of hate speech and freedom of expression. It is not always the case when you get there and in this case discussion often deviated from the topic due to the line of questioning from the participants as well.

As a matter of fact, a lot of participants use the forum to bring forth other subjects than the one under discussion. While there is nothing wrong with doing that, as I understand many of these participants need a forum like this to be heard, but it is rather unproductive, time-wasting, largely distracting and drains a lot of energy of everyone involved.

The event was concluded after recommendations from the participants. While I believe that such seminars that educate people about freedom of expression are very useful, further interest among the educated general public could be stirred by holding public debates between liberal and conservative columnists and intellectuals who are for and against freedom of expression, instead of constantly offering a lecturing monologue.

If it does not convince more people of how important free speech is, it would actually make the anti free speech debaters look bad.