Ity was supposed to be like any other day. Another panel discussion, another debate, another question-and-answer session, and another salutary conclusion thanking the guest speakers for their time. However, unlike other other panel discussion, this one was to die before it ever lived.
On April 9, purported intelligence officials approached the Lahore University of Management Sciences and directed it to cancel its panel discussion on the human rights discourse on Balochistan. The event was considered to be against the ‘national interest’, and as such, LUMS, without offering much resistance, called it off.
Although much of what has been said about the incident has revolved around whether the ban was necessary, appropriate, or justified, the actual dangers of state censorship are perhaps missing from the discussion altogether.
The ability to dissent has lost much ground.
The state had originally afforded its citizens the freedom of expression and information in terms of Article 19 of the Constitution of 1973. This was further cemented in the enactment of Article 19-A, which guaranteed to each person the freedom to any and all information that was required to make an informed decision as to his future and that of his country.
However, despite such safeguards, access to information has always remained elusive to most Pakistanis, resulting in a skewed and incomplete worldview which has distorted history and altered realities.
Pakistan, after all, is one of those peculiar anomalies in the world which can boast of having lived through the majority seceding from the minority, only to once again find itself in a very similar position vis-à-vis Balochistan.
Also read: Lums students protest ‘academic censorship’
It is a country which advocates the right of self-determination for Kashmiris, whilst at the same time denies the mere right of expression to its own citizens in Balochistan — and to a disturbing extent in Gilgit-Baltistan.
It is a community where the Objectives Resolution still receives greater attention and recognition than the Aug 11 speech of the Quaid. And it remains a society where people look in reverence towards Pakistan’s founding father, who was from a minority sect of Islam, yet feels no compunction in killing, maiming and persecuting members of that very same sect in the name of his created polity.
For us, the truth has always been one-sided. There have never been two sides to a story, or two sides to any one coin. Perhaps if there were, history would be different, and so would Pakistan.
However, be that as it may, intolerance to diversity, dissent, and differences has undoubtedly left our access to information and ability to express incomplete. In fact, over time, the freedom to express, for all practical purposes, has been rendered extinct in many areas, places, as well as subject matters in Pakistan. Whether it be discussion in public, inquiries in seminaries, debates around the water-cooler at your employment place or in government, the ability to dissent has already lost significant ground over the years.
It is in such a context that the overall reaction to the state’s censorship of academia can be better understood, and the significance of the attack better appreciated. The freedom to express does not begin with academia, but it surely ends with it.
It is the cradle of intellectual innovation, the nursery of debate, and the foundation of modern society. It is the sanctuary where ideas are to be independently floated, theories conceptualised, and knowledge imparted to society at large.
The very premise of a vibrant academic community rests in its independence to carry on its business without government interference. Rather than remaining the mouthpiece of the powers that be, academia can only be truly effective when it is able to question authority, challenge established taboos, and seek out alternative views and opinions on matters which would otherwise appear settled.
In this manner, academia is better able to do what most individuals in their professional capacity can either ill-afford to do, or seldom have time to orchestrate: create a pool of innovations, alternative views, and dynamic ideas, from which larger society may pick and adopt to create a more stable society amenable to incremental yet necessary changes.
This is why the instant attack is significant. Not only has space for debate and information dissemination shrunk to a shadow image of its previous self, the squeeze is now being directed towards that one space which can serve as the vanguard to reclaim lost territory, as well as bring about necessary changes in societal mindsets.
Hence, contrary to what many may think, the significance of the attack is not that it is the ‘first of many attacks’ on academic freedom, but rather that it is in fact the ‘last stand’ against the state’s triumphant march towards strangulating space for dissension within the country.
All in all, this is not a ‘LUMS4academicfreedom’ debate, but rather the last leg of the concluding battle in the ‘right2information’ war.
The writer is a Karachi-based attorney-at-law
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2015