THE judgement of the Islamabad High Court chief justice which freed protesters jailed in Adiala after having been charged with sedition for participation in a peaceful protest for release of PTM chief Manzoor Pashteen, was, for progressive political workers, civil rights activists and democrats everywhere, an important symbolic victory.
Only three days later, the Lahore High Court denied bail to Alamgir Wazir, who has been in jail also on sedition charges for a speech delivered at the Student Solidarity March in Lahore last November.
It was always unlikely that an otherwise bold decision in one superior court would have an immediate knock-on effect in other such cases. In fact, the vast majority of ordinary people in this country are subject to a ruthless thana and katcheri system at the lowest levels, as well as to military personnel in regions like Balochistan and ex-Fata. The judgement, then, could become a small footnote in an otherwise unending tale of injustice.
“Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” — Frantz Fanon
The current spate of repression against progressive voices challenging the state’s militarism and other reactionary forces in society has a long history. As the Islamabad High Court chief justice noted, the sedition law has colonial roots. Most famously, Gandhi was sentenced to six years in jail under the law in 1922 for writing ‘politically sensitive articles’ in the weekly journal Young India.
Pakistan’s post-1947 history is littered with a plethora of similar high-profile cases, many recorded under the epithet of ‘conspiracy’. Two merit specific mention: first, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951 in which Faiz Ahmed Faiz was implicated in sedition; and the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case which implicated Baloch and Pakhtun leaders of the National Awami Party including Wali Khan, Khair Bakhsh Marri, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo and Ataullah Mengal.
Quite simply, the freedom movement has continued into the era of formal independence, our very own establishment replacing the British in ‘criminalising’ those speaking for disenfranchised classes, ethnic groups and religious minorities.
The freedom movement has continued into the era of independence.
In this sense alone, colonialism lives on here — as it does in other parts of Asia and in Africa. As in the past, the current wave of state repression has support from a certain segment of society. While the mainstream media does not necessarily give voice to different points of view on such matters, often vitriolic exchanges in the digital space — and the practice of allegedly state-sponsored trolling — show how deeply entrenched colonial attitudes are.
Arguably the greatest anti-colonial thinker and freedom fighter of the 20th century, Frantz Fanon provided insights into the decisive role that educated classes played not only in the struggle for formal independence from European rule, but in the post-colonial epoch of nation-building. Having employed their relative privilege to lead the colonised to formal independence, the educated classes took on the mantle of the colonisers and carried on with, pun intended, business as usual.
It is thus that more than seven decades after the end of formal colonialism, the highest offices of the land are peopled by the ‘educated classes’, who, with notable exceptions, continue to use the big stick to silence opposition. Meanwhile, those at lower levels of officialdom who hail from less educated backgrounds, play out their role as pawns of power, just as soldiers of the British Indian army, peons and constables in the civil and police services of the Raj did before them.
What is distinctive about the contemporary iteration of colonial power, however, is that there are tens of millions of young people that have the wherewithal to understand the workings and hypocrisies of institutions of state charged with protecting civil liberties. Whether they are formally educated or not is by the by: they have aspirations, they are plugged into a globalised online universe, and they are able to give voice to their frustrations. This is particularly true for those who hail from historically brutalised ethnic peripheries, but increasingly also for those from relatively privileged regions like Punjab which have traditionally been captive audiences for colonial power.
Across the border in India too, young people are being charged with sedition for challenging the Modi regime which has revived memories of the British Raj. There too the excesses of the state garner support from a segment of the educated classes. The challenge for those who stand with Alamgir, Manzoor and other brave leaders of today’s freedom movement is to speak to those on the other side, who, like their predecessors under the Raj, were eventually convinced to decolonise their minds and stand with the oppressed.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2020