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Shades of McCarthyism

Updated November 24, 2016

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MALICE and bravado, which have become the main ingredients of public discourse in Pakistan, now threaten to develop into a wave of persecution against whoever is considered to be on the wrong side of the all-powerful authorities.

We recently went through a phase when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was lambasted for being a friend of Narendra Modi. The propagandists, both official and non-official, found Modi’s hand behind the unrest in Balochistan; those who asked questions about CPEC were labelled his stooges; and he was even blamed for the smog that paralysed life across parts of Pakistan. One wondered as to when Modi would be blamed for the filth in Karachi, the Nandipur project scandal, and damage to the cotton crop.

Although Prime Minister Modi had himself announced his intention to interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs, our reactions carried a confession of incompetence in protecting our interests – which even the Cold War rivals never did, even while nabbing each other’s spies.

The rise of the Panama Papers in popular ratings helped move the media away from Modi. Its verdict on the performance of the PTI counsel in court was utterly indefensible. The judges make observations during hearings in an effort to unravel the truth; these are not verdicts on any plea before them. If everything that happens in courts were reported, the majesty of the law could be undermined. Hamid Khan perhaps overreacted to his trial by the media, but his grievance is legitimate. Many others before him have been similarly treated.


What is happening in Pakistan now should worry all conscientious citizens.


Meanwhile, another media trial has begun, concerning a report that was first described as a leak but then later denounced as a fabrication and a plant. In this case, quite a few media persons have become prosecutors. They seem determined to undo the principle of their autonomy in deciding complaints against them, which they had won in the 1960s by obliging Ayub Khan to accept a moratorium on actions against media persons. Eventually, the government yielded to the media’s demand for its own court of honour and, after a long hassle, the Press Council was established. It is a classical example of shooting one’s own feet.

Citizens who care for their basic freedoms and the rule of law must be on guard against hate-driven campaigns designed to silence the voices of reason, for they carry the germs of McCarthyism. It might be useful to decision-makers, politicians, administrators and the people at large to recall a modern-period witch-hunt, known as McCarthyism, and what it did to American society.

In the 1950s, a Republican senator called Joseph McCarthy forwarded his ambitions by exploiting the bogey of a communist threat to the United States. He launched a campaign to purge the US State Department, other government agencies and Hollywood of communists, causing several thousand Americans to lose their jobs and unmitigated suffering to countless others. No one dared to denounce him, not even president Eisenhower. The McCarthy juggernaut ran aground when it targeted the army, which had the means to counterattack and expose him.

The US Senate eventually condemned McCarthy, but not before the whole of society had been affected by this witch-hunt. The victims included Hollywood celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller and Dalton Trumbo. The latter won an Oscar for his screenplay, The Brave One, written under a pseudonym since he had been blacklisted. The paranoia led to many ridiculous excesses, such as the banning of the story of Robin Hood in some educational institutions; robbing the rich to help the poor was perceived as communism.

What makes McCarthyism especially reprehensible is that its disastrous effects are not confined to its direct victims. The climate of suspicion, hate and intolerance (that any witch-hunt generates) suppresses not only dissent but also free thinking. Ordinary people become afraid of associating with fellow beings. Society stops receiving the benefits of productive associations, assemblies and collective endeavours. In a way, the persecution of individuals or groups for their racial identity or political views dehumanises society to an extent that it consumes itself within a short period. The Nazis built their power by liquidating the Jews and communists — what horrible tribulations this brought to the German people and all of humankind.

McCarthyism’s most sinister aspect is the social acceptance of questionable laws, regulations, and policies adopted to fight so-called subversion. One of the most widely used weapons in the hands of South Africa’s racist authors of Apartheid was the Suppression of Communist Activities Act, which was invoked to persecute political workers, writers, journalists and rights activists.

What is happening in Pakistan now should worry all conscientious citizens. Efforts are already under way to find scapegoats for the state’s failures and bunglings. The selective targeting of international NGOs; police licensed to hound civil society organisations; a blanket cover over the issue of internment centres and its detainees under the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulation; the studied neglect of enforced disappearances; and the judiciary’s surrender to the idea of parallel courts are all signs of a drift towards McCarthyism. The supreme interest of Pakistan’s people demands a halt to this suicidal trend.

Tailpiece: the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong wrote a letter to the president of Pakistan about the hanging of two men who were subsequently acquitted by the Supreme Court.

The director-general (C-II) at the president’s secretariat (Public) forwarded the letter “for appropriate action” to the secretary of the law and justice division. The following day, the latter’s senior private secretary simply marked the letter to ‘Law-I’. The very next day, the section officer (Law-I) wrote to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (which, incidentally, was mentioned nowhere in the dispatches): “The reference Asian Human Rights Commission pertains to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Therefore, the same is forwarded to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for appropriate action.” The letter was countersigned by consultant (C).

One can only marvel at the speed with which papers are disposed of by the authorities, and the efficiency with which matters are put aside.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2016