“In the infancy of societies, the chiefs of state shape its institutions; later the institutions shape the chiefs of state,” said Charles de Montesquieu.

This is certainly true for Pakistan where one particular institution, or at least its successive doyens, have played nine pins with every chief the country has had after the first decade of its existence. In the early days the army controlled the country blatantly through martial law, of which we have had plenty. It started to look as though that we had actually seen the last of them.

Our hopes seemed to have come true as we saw two successive democratically-elected governments finish their terms; Pakistan is now set to go to the polls in July.  But this time, ladies and gentlemen, the control exercised by the only institution that runs the country, the only institution that demands a reverence usually reserved for the divine, may seem benign when it is anything but.

After decades of harbouring terrorists, after years of turning into the local version of the East India Company – not colonising foreign lands for resources but parasitising their own from within — and years of controlling us as rulers, the military establishment experimented with ruling behind the scenes. Becoming the king makers so to speak.

It did not work out well for them as their golden boy, the chosen messiah, the hero Imran Khan, turned out to be a moron. The establishment tried to fix the game for him by trying to destroy other political parties, but did not manage to give him that edge.

In the age of social media, dissent, which was localised before — and thus easily controlled through disappearances of critics, without anyone finding out —  has become national, even international. Previously, journalists and activists could be quietly kidnapped and killed without uproar. To counter this, social media accounts were created by the hundreds, to troll voices that were deemed anti-army.

Criticism is hard to control, however, and finally the old tried and tested methods of abducting people were extended to include bloggers and social media activists. While disappearances earlier meant that your dead body would be found by the roadside, this time the abductees were tortured, told not to say who tortured them and then released. Most of them fled the country.

Now just a few weeks before the general elections, the controlling of dissent, of free speech, of human rights, and of liberty has become more pernicious. The news media was muzzled, clearly to influence the election result and some channels are engaging in self-censorship due to serious threats. Then, Gul Bukhari, an activist and journalist, was recently abducted for a few hours. She is back after a lot of clamour on social media. For someone who used to tweet relentlessly about the army’s role in all kinds of anti-democratic and fascist activities, her silence is deafening.

Through all this, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a movement by people from the tribal areas, who had been denied rights, had their loved ones abducted and were the main sufferers of the war against the Taliban, emerged as one of the biggest ones seen in recent history. The news media was banned from broadcasting their activities, so they took to social media. When their voices could not be controlled, their leaders were arrested.

All of the key freedoms are under threat in Pakistan. Human rights activists, dissenters, journalists and many others have been threatened and the crackdown is so extreme that many voices have been silenced. In the midst of it all, the ISPR (the army’s PR wing) complained about how social media accounts of bloggers, activists and journalists were criticising the state and during a recent press conference, even named them.

Here’s the thing. The army knows that it can no longer hide its fascism. Mainstream media can be silenced but it is not easy to do so with social media. People can be abducted or arrested but it won’t be under the radar anymore.

What they are doing now is simple. They still want to control Pakistan, its people and its resources. They tried to do so by pretending that freedom and democracy were important to them, while continuing to subvert them, but it did not work because information is fast and people are not stupid.

Like all bullies, they lie, and they know that we know they lie. “Pakistan belongs to all Pakistanis regardless of beliefs or opinions,” said the Army Chief recently. This is a barefaced lie. Pakistan is only for those that toe the establishment’s line. They know that we the citizens are aware of their speciousness, their perfidious behaviour and their solipsism.

When they say they are not responsible for rigging elections, for social engineering, for promoting conformity and social conservatism, for not being answerable to anyone in the country, for stealing from us, they know we are not fooled anymore. They also know we are helpless to do anything about this. And this helplessness is what makes them stronger. They can now blatantly disregarding our rights and liberties and tell us to enjoy it.

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong”, said Voltaire. He also said, “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticise.”

Pakistan in the 21 century is now reminiscent of 18th century France and its army is reminiscent of the East India Company.

(Published in Sedaa – Our Voices)

We have been silenced into submission because we don’t want to be the next Mashal

Muslim tradition holds that in the early 7th century AD, in a town in Arabia, a slave called Bilal was tortured by his owner. His crime, so says Islamic history, was to walk away from the existing ideological landscape. To embrace a new religious and political order. To dissent. Bilal did not back off and 1,400 years later, he is considered a hero in Islam. Why? Because he dissented. But also because he blasphemed.

Move forward and the followers of the religion that Bilal evidently helped to spread, have adopted the traditions of his torturers. Two years ago, on April 24, Sabeen Mehmud was killed because she wanted to provide a safe space for people to gather and discuss ideas, to challenge ideology, to dissent. We were told that extremists had killed her. The same jihadists who have killed thousands of Pakistanis. The same ilk, who have killed thousands all over the world.

But in Pakistan, the situation gets evermore fascinating. The State itself has adopted the same techniques as Bilal’s tormentors. And against whom you ask? Surely, the State – which includes civilian and military both – must be performing its duties to the letter; and if horrible torture techniques are being used, it must be against those that have killed our children?

Well, no. The State still has its ‘assets’, which have always been in the form of Islamic terror organizations that have continued to indulge in violence all over the country. We always knew this was happening. There were some who even vocally questioned it. Perhaps in the hope that our small voices will gather momentum and the State will be made to answer. Answer for deceiving us by continuing to support our killers, while pretending to fight them.

It wasn’t meant to be though. Some activists and bloggers were abducted. They were spirited away to unknown locations and they were tortured. The rest of us continued to protest and in an unprecedented move they were released. Almost none of them have spoken about what happened to them and who did it.

The bloggers were accused of blasphemy. It was said that their social media pages were full of anti-Islamic content. That tactic has now become the norm. The State has weaponized blasphemy because it knows that it is a death sentence without a trial. It is the perfect way of silencing any questions about how its machinery works. Accuse someone of blasphemy and sit back. The caretakers of religion will take over.

That is what happened to Mashal Khan. His horrendous murder did what was required. The government beat the drum of blasphemy for months, prior to his killing. Perhaps it did so of its own accord or perhaps it was compelled to do so. But it got the job done. People got scared. Many of those who used to question the way this country was being run, have backed off. They have been intimidated into silence. But silence was not enough. We also needed to be shown clearly and irrevocably, who rules us.

So it transpired that Naureen Leghari, who admitted to plotting a terrorist attack on Easter, became the daughter of the nation, who should be rehabilitated. While small time bloggers and activists are tortured and killed, known terrorists like Ehsanullah Ehsan – who has recently surrendered – can be seen on TV smilingly parroting the state narrative of RAW involvement in terrorism in Pakistan.

Just silencing wasn’t enough. A slap in the face was also needed to ensure complete acquiescence. Not only do we not have the right to question State agenda, we also need to be shown how inconsequential we are. Because it is not about good Taliban and bad Taliban anymore. From the looks of it, all Taliban are good Taliban now. The enemy are those who need to be muzzled for looking askance at the State. While terrorists are given the benefit of the doubt, activists and writers are taken to task in the worst possible manner. And what better way to do so than to use blasphemy. It is a time honoured tactic. And it has again been successful. Journalists are self-censoring. Activists and bloggers have gone into hiding. At a time when we needed more voices to come out and challenge 70 years of propaganda and brainwashing, we have very very few left.

Because nobody wants to be the next Mashal.

(Published in The Nation)

Quetta blast: How dare you give precedence to a road over human lives?

In the rest of the world when a terrorist attack happens, the leaders do their best to empathize with the people of their countries. Their condemnation is always targeted toward those who have perpetrated the attack and they always ensure that the value of human life takes precedence. In Pakistan, the situation is always different. The most favourite of the establishment’s bogeyman is – no points for guessing – India and its Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Even though we know without a shadow of a doubt that an act has been perpetrated by a local Islamist terrorist, our leaders still try to point out external forces that are behind it.

Monday’s attack in Quetta took over 70 lives and injured many others; almost all of them the top echelon of lawyers in Balochistan. They had collected together at a hospital to mourn the killing of the Balochistan Bar Association President, when a suicide blast took their lives. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA) a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan took responsibility, as did the Islamic State, for both.  The JA spokesman clearly stated that such attacks will continue “until the imposition of an Islamic system in Pakistan”.

Condemnation of this act by the government and the establishment was quick to appear. As always, this was followed by the race between the PM, COAS and others to reach the site as soon as possible to ensure that photo ops were timely. They saw the carnage and the wounded and then they both decided that the best way of explaining away this huge loss of a whole generation of Balochistan lawyers, was to tell the people of Pakistan that the attack was targeted at the CPEC, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Both the PM Nawaz Sharif and the COAS Raheel Sharif said exactly the same thing, giving precedence to a road over human lives.

It is as if they are trying to drum into the heads of the Pakistani people that their lives are being lost because the “external forces” are jealous of the heaven that this country is and the mega-heaven it will become once the CPEC is operational.

How dare you talk to us in this condescending manner? How dare you tell us that the promises you made under the guise of the National Action Plan (NAP), where you were supposed to get rid of these terrorist activities, have been fulfilled and these attacks now happen because people are actually jealous of the wonder that is this country? How dare you say this to people who lose their family members on a daily basis and expect them to join in your jingoism? We do not want our loved ones to be “shaheed”. That is not our job or our desire. We do not want to send our children out and spend the day in fear that they may not come back. We do not want to be parents of “shaheeds” nor do we want to be their children. We ourselves do not want to be “shaheed”.

This kind of jingoistic rhetoric is useless and dangerous. All that has done for 68 years is lead us to this point. Nothing has been done to expunge the ideal of jihad and Islamism from the minds of our generations. The idea that you planted. And now, on the one hand you allow various supposedly banned organizations to hold rallies all over the country, sporting flags with Raheel Sharif’s picture on them and on the other hand tell us that your road is the reason why 70 people were killed? How dare you?

It is like you have so little regard for our intelligence that you think this rhetoric will still work. No, it won’t. We do not want you to rally us around with your hyper patriotic flag waving and your sponsoring of propaganda songs and movies. We want you to do your jobs; which is to protect the citizens of this country.

I for one do not believe that the enemy has been weakened. And I take offence at the statements that these latest spree of attacks are “soft targets”. How are countless human lives soft targets? The people who lost their lives in Quetta were as important to this country and their families as any soldier. And they were certainly more important than a road or an army barrack.

So stop pouring salt on our wounds by being so devoid of humanity that you compare our lives to infrastructure. Do your job. If it is RAW go after it, if it is TTP go after it. Don’t expect us to nod along with you when you make stupendously pathetic statements. Do your job and stop acting like our lives do not matter. We are sick of it.

Published in The Nation.