Silencing dissent in Pakistan

Published April 29, 2015
The failure of the state will probably continue beyond the grave as it most likely fails to convincingly apprehend, investigate and punish the perpetrators. —Reuters
The failure of the state will probably continue beyond the grave as it most likely fails to convincingly apprehend, investigate and punish the perpetrators. —Reuters

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” — this clichéd quote is ascribed to Benjamin Franklin; it presupposes a trade-off but for the inhabitants of Karachi, there is no choice to be made; there is neither liberty, nor security.

The murder of Sabeen Mahmud amply demonstrates this but examples are, unfortunately, not rare. In 2013, Parveen Rehman, an activist who spent 28-years campaigning for land and basic service rights for the poor in Karachi, was murdered in similar circumstances. There will undoubtedly be countless others we may not have heard of but who have suffered a similar fate.

Also read: Idealism didn't kill Sabeen, bullets did

I had only met Sabeen once (when my wife was speaking at the T2F) and had spoken to her once again when I was intending to speak on how Muslim countries can build constitutional democracies while paying fidelity to religious values.

I recall being impressed at the time that someone had put in so much effort to create a forum, a space (perhaps the only one) where historians, lecturers and scientists shared knowledge on subjects as diverse as dark matter, human rights and the arts — a rare luxury in Muslim majority countries where, to put into some context the poor state of knowledge creation, in 2005 “Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined and where the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics.” The T2F, it appeared, sought to fill this chronic gap.

And that is precisely what makes her death all the more troubling; it signals that the personal cost for producing knowledge that challenges the status quo can be very high; several years have gone by and Karachi still remains firmly in the grip of the same vested interests, which remind us time and again that there can be no meaningful dissent.

Also read: Shrinking space for reason

To be sure, one does not need to have liked what Sabeen did or agree with what she said. Nevertheless, unless every person — including those who oppose reason or dissent — is assured security of life, there is every incentive for people to not step up and fix the problems that need to be fixed in this country.

The social harm of silencing Sabeen then, and other people who stepped up to this job, will be severe and incalculable; the precedent remains unmistakable.

The real tragedy here is not just that an innocent individual life was taken (which is unforgivable in itself); nor is this a question about free speech or free expression. Rather, the issue is one of social progress and justice.

No matter what your beliefs are and where they originate from, prosperity requires the production of knowledge; knowledge, however, cannot be produced in an environment when dissenting voices are punished.

Also read: After Sabeen Mahmud's murder, progressives see dark future

Thus, the consequence of this murder can only result in more of what has happened for decades: the brain-drain will continue as educated, well-intentioned persons who can bring social change in the country seek any opportunity to escape, if they have not already done so, not for lack of opportunity but because those opportunities are meaningless without security.

This sets up a vicious cycle where those who can make a difference leave and those who the country needs to get rid of — those who have their hands on the trigger — the vested interests — thrive.

The end result is an irreplaceable void for those who wither away at the receiving end of suffering at the margins of social order.

And this is precisely where the state has failed most dismally.

It is clear that not only has the state not been able to positively deliver basic public goods since its inception; it has miserably even failed to deliver the less costly good of providing basic security so as to create a stable environment where social entrepreneurs — such as Parveen (land rights) and Sabeen (knowledge) could have stepped into the state’s shoes to do its job.

Democracy is not simply a state of existence; it is a process.

And, to take a wholly pessimistic view, the failure of the state will probably continue beyond the grave as it most likely fails to convincingly apprehend, investigate and punish the perpetrators.

Also read: Who will dare to be Parveen Rehman?

The darkly comedic script used on previous occasions will (and I hope I am mistaken) likely play out again. That is, to show that it is responsive, the state may arrest some individuals and put them on show trials in what pass off as “courts” or kill others claiming they were perpetrators or it may seek to establish some commission of inquiry that is either powerless or drags its heels whilst people’s memories and feelings regarding the incident fade.

As a separate matter, considering some of the speculation about the motives surrounding her murder, can the state even be trusted to mete out justice?

Unfortunately, beggars cannot be choosers.

It is perhaps not too cliché to remark then that, for those who aspire to do good in this country, there is little justice before or after death.

We do not know who murdered Sabeen but we do know the only constant in this land is that there is no liberty, nor security.

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