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Who is sovereign?

April 19, 2019

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The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

BALOCHISTAN bleeds, yet again. Every time we are told that this country’s longest-suffering regions and people are on the road to peace and prosperity, an orgy of death and destruction explodes onto our newsfeeds, making clear that right-wing supremacism and spectacular violence will be with us for a while. Today it is Quetta and Ormara, yesterday it was Waziristan, tomorrow it may be Shikarpur or Rajanpur.

Perhaps most distressing is the reaction from officialdom and a segment of the urban middle classes; hackneyed at best and devastatingly counterproductive at worst.

The dastardly suicide bombing in Quetta’s Hazarganji neighbourhood and subsequent target killing of bus passengers on the Makran coastal highway have been described as incidents of sectarian and/or ethnic violence. And almost inevitably, our minds are trained to link the ‘terrorists’ with those satanic foreign conspirators always on hand to undermine our sovereignty.

But what is this whole sovereignty business about? As I wrote two weeks ago, our economy has been unable to survive without the crutch of IMF funds for (at least) the past three decades. The host of conditionalities which accompany donor handouts make a mockery of the notion that we are an independent polity with autonomy to shape our own social and economic policies.

Everything, it seems, is a ‘foreign conspiracy’.

This notionally ‘sovereign’ political-eco­no­mic order condemns many of our 220 million people to uncertain livelihoods and a lack of dignity. Perhaps even more damningly, it makes no sense to talk about sovereignty in a society that has been brutalised by war and terrorism, when we cannot even guarantee the basic right to life of ordinary citizens, underrepresented ethnic and religious com­munities, women and the poor especially so. Officialdom can continue to cry itself hoarse that economic crisis, terrorism, war and just about everything else is a ‘foreign conspiracy’ — but that has gotten us nowhere so far.

It must be said loud and clear: the political ideal of sovereignty is meaningful only if the people of Pakistan are the makers of their own destiny; if there is a genuinely popular dimension to the making of state policy. This certainly means participating in the exercise of electing representatives, which is an important aspect of the modern political order. But elections alone do not equate to popular sovereignty (especially in an age where democratic electoral processes are heavily mediated by moneyed lobbies).

The crisis of Pakistan’s political project can be located in decades of ideological indo­ctri­nation and political expediency which have propped up old and new elites committed only to their own parochial interests. The fact that unelected state institutions have historically been unwilling to subject themselves to elected representatives’ oversight is only one part of the problem. As significant is the systematic manufacturing of so-called ‘public opinion’ — in the press, educational institutions and increasingly virtual spaces which are major battlegrounds of 21st century society.

Unfortunately, many polities that can claim to have upheld the principle of popular sovereignty to a much greater extent than Pakistan are also degenerating before our very eyes. Take India, the world’s largest democracy (its general election is currently playing out over three weeks!). The regime of Narendra Modi has explicitly undermined democratic institutions, criminalised dissent and played up fears of the ‘outsider’ to try and institutionalise a tyranny of the demographic majority. For all the talk of making India great, Modi is undermining popular sovereignty. Yet it is telling that young challengers like the ex-president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University student union Kanhaiya Kumar are nevertheless making their voices heard in the electoral exercise. Kumar is campaigning for a Lok Sabha seat from Bihar on a Communist Party of India (Marxist) ticket.

Modi’s efforts notwithstanding, India’s educational institutions remain relatively democratic spaces where students can learn about competing political ideologies and actively campaign around progressive causes. In Pakistan, students like Mashal Khan are hunted down by peers and administrators alike, let alone encouraged to take their experiences on campus onto a countrywide political stage.

It is in an environment where the free ex­­change of ideas and the right to express po­­litical opinions is criminalised that extremist ideologies thrive. It may well be the case that the ‘terrorists’ are all doing the handiwork of foreign conspirators. But the question remains, has state policy changed? Are the people of Pakistan really sovereign? Or do they continue to be subject to an establishment that acts in their name to disastrous effect?

Rebuilding our society along progressive, humane and just lines is not as hard as it seems. Just like it is not that hard to free ourselves from the chains of economic imperialism. But this will mean taking back our sovereignty from those who have held it in check for more than seven decades.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2019