LAST week an unsigned email from NetrackerOnline@gmail.com landed in my inbox. It accused me of stirring “hate against the state and the institutions in the garb of being sane and intellectual” while claiming “we know what cooks in your mind when u address the masses and who u work for”. And so, to deal with me, it says “we can enlist them”. What “them” means is unstated.
Hidden somewhere in cyber space some prankster bearing some personal grudge — possibly a student who couldn’t pass my physics course — might well have authored this email. If so the only action called for has already been taken — hitting the delete button followed by a trash flush. I lost no sleep over this.
But instead, what if today there is actually some organised and systematic effort afoot to frighten and silence those Pakistani voices judged unpatriotic? Could this be why — now for many months — meaningful political analysis and discussion have disappeared from local print and electronic media? Bloggers have disappeared, only to reappear with horrendous tales to tell, and many journalists have been stilled forever.
To gag voices that dare criticise abuse of power cannot lead to a better and more viable Pakistan.
The evidence is all over: cable operators have been forced to block certain TV news channels, and street hawkers have been warned against selling certain newspapers that don’t toe the line. The line — that mysterious line — can only be inferred because specifying it might reveal too much of who actually draws the line. With some exceptions, owners, editors, anchors, journalists, and opinion writers have fallen quickly into place.
But even if some voices are successfully gagged, I contend such tactics by anonymous actors cannot ever create a more stable or stronger Pakistan. In fact the efforts of NetrackerOnline@gmail.com and his ilk are arguably counter-patriotic. Here’s why.
First, freedom of expression acts as a safety valve against authoritarian rule, tyranny and secret government. Secret government is bad because it is uninhibited by the checks and balances needed for good governance. Accountability is not just about iqamas and politicians. It’s equally needed for generals, judges, lawyers, professors, policemen and milkmen. If certain voices are amplified while others are suppressed, genuine accountability becomes difficult.
Second, true patriotism comes from caring. In fact, real caring is often the reason why some dare raise voices to criticise what they perceive wrong around them. While Mr NetrackerOnline@gmail.com was probably told in his school that criticising state institutions is unpatriotic, this view is without logic.
Should citizens of Pakistan be stopped from sharing and airing their thoughts on PIA’s performance, the national cricket team, or the country’s professors, politicians, or generals? None of these are holy, faultless, and above reproach. No patriotic Pakistani can have beef with the state or any of its institutions provided these function within their respective mandates.
This begs the key question: who is a patriotic Pakistani and acts to benefit it? Equivalently, what is Pakistan’s national interest and who may rightfully define it? Surely this is not for some hidden force to specify. The only proper way is to determine its parameters through open and honest public debate.
Here’s my take, hopefully shared by many millions. A true patriot wants to make Pakistan poverty-free; to help it achieve high standards of justice and financial integrity; to convince its different peoples and provinces about mutual sharing and caring; to help make real universities instead of the ones we have; to explore space and become a world leader in science; to develop literature and the arts; and much more.
The other conception of Pakistani patriotism and national interest — the mainstream one — is different. Taught in schools and propagated via the media, it focuses upon our relations with India. This involves freeing Kashmir from India; deterring India with nuclear weapons; creating strategic depth against India through controlling Afghanistan; neutralising Indian power by nurturing the Pakistan-China relationship; punishing Iran for its friendship with India; etc. This India-centric view has been strengthened by Indian obduracy on Kashmir, its unconscionable repression of Kashmiri protesters, and the emergence of a hard-line anti-Muslim Hindu right.
But now matters other than India are casting dark shadows. Short of nuclear war or a miracle, nothing can now prevent Pakistan from reaching 400 million people in 35-40 years. Water is running short, and environmental destruction is everywhere. Then there are fanatical mullahs that the state appeases, fights, and then appeases again.
Add these all up and you can understand why Mr NetrackerOnline@gmail.com’s mind is being unconsciously governed by the fears of Robert Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes famously articulated the dread of a state sliding deep into dystopia. During the English Civil War, he became obsessed with demonstrating the necessity of a strong central authority to avoid the evil of discord and civil war.
In one of the best known passages of English literature, Hobbes writes: “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” His only solution is an absolute authority in the form of an absolute monarch. Else, says Hobbes, there would be a “war of all against all”.
Hobbes was wrong and his negative vision proved false. England grew to be Europe’s most powerful country and a fountain of civilisation. Democracy was central to this; without developing a system resting on freedom of speech and thought England could never have become the cradle of the Scientific Revolution and then the Industrial Revolution. Rejection of military rule, hereditary privilege, and absolute monarchy eventually won universal acceptance.
I wonder if Mr NetrackerOnline@gmail.com and others with a negative vision will get to read this article. Will they realise that trying to shut people up is actually unpatriotic? For all who care for the well-being of Pakistan and its people, it is a patriotic duty to speak against abuses of power. Equating patriotism with passivity and unquestioning obedience is nonsense. Pakistan Zindabad!
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2018