Death by a thousand cuts

13 Sep 2020

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The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WHILE the political and parliamentary opposition is dithering due to the personal agendas and dilemmas of its main leaders from Shahbaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz to Asif Ali Zardari, space for dissent is shrinking rapidly in the country.

For example, the state feels empowered and encouraged to extend its policy of brutal force that it used, by its own reckoning, to telling effect in Balochistan and erstwhile Fata. So now it is being rolled out in the rest of the country too.

Having subdued the bulk of the media or co-opted it, in particular the high impact e-media, the one obstacle in its ambitions is of course the wretched social media. Some official sitting in a dark basement somewhere may already have made a case for shutting down this evil.

Of course, to do this, national security considerations would have to be invoked. But even those in the security establishment who have often wielded a club to get their way or a hammer to smash a snail understand the ramifications of such a move in the wider world.

The user can disappear and then reappear days, weeks or even months later, totally cleansed of ideology or conscience or sense of justice.

Let’s assume, for example, you are a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, authorised to use the prestigious acronym RCDS after your name. You are supposed to be suave enough with the necessary international exposure to understand how much scorn dictatorial conduct gets you elsewhere.

Does this not create an operational issue for you then? What options do you have left? Well, try this. Even if social media can’t be tamed despite using the various government bodies including the regulator to inundate the managers of the different platforms with complaints, you are not out of options.

The easiest of these is what comes naturally to you as you have perfected it into an art. You don’t hold much sway over the platform owners/administrators but physically the user is well within your grasp. Once you understand this you say: Hallelujah. Options galore.

The user can disappear and then reappear days, weeks or even months later, totally cleansed of their ideology or conscience or sense of justice or whatever else was motivating them. Having undergone painful rehab, it is reasonable to say that the days when they freely aired their views are now tucked away somewhere in the past.

Their re-education may not ensure their views will now be in complete sync with yours. But who cares. In their new life, and the experience of returning after being disappeared, I am told, is an experience akin to getting a new life, they will lie low having learnt that lesson the hard way.

What if the stink that such an enforced disappearance causes each time it happens potentially snags the policy itself? Well, you still have not run out of choices. You could always initiate a number of cases, the police is in your pocket, isn’t it, against the errant social media user.

The charges in such cases could range from outright sedition to spreading disaffection among all-powerful institutions to fanning sectarian or ethnic tensions with a view to igniting conflict. This ought to have a sobering effect on the headstrong individual on, say, Twitter.

Let them come for routinely adjourned court hearings as they have to or would face ex parte proceedings. A few months down the line, with their employment in all probability terminated due to regular absence thanks to court visits, default on the mortgage, their motorcycle or car repossessed by the bank, tell me how far from their minds would be thoughts of dissent?

And if the foolish activist has still not paid a heavy enough price, one can always stop them on the road as they are headed home, give them a ride around town with their face shoved against the floor of the vehicle so they are reminded of how vulnerable, helpless and lonely they are.

Such short rides also obviate possible criticism over forced disappearance as the target is back after a few hours’ ordeal. Nobody finds out they were actually gone, and they may see the folly of their ways too. Such a process potentially every few days/weeks on a loop could be exhausting and can wear down the most resolute individual.

But some still keep coming back. Few in number they may be but silent they are not prepared to be. You can’t really ignore them for the fear that their idiotic fantasies for a better, more open tomorrow may snowball into a wider, popular sentiment.

This fear appears unfounded. For such sentiments to snowball into a wider public movement, political organisation seems a prerequisite. And the organised political opposition that would have championed or spearheaded such a popular sentiment is by and large dormant.

Those at the helm of the two main opposition parties seem to have abandoned defiance as an option. They appear content to wait till they somehow find themselves in the good books of the political engineers again. Meanwhile, concerns and issues of the people be damned.

The main opposition leaders are too compromised or too ill and exhausted by all the persecution, court cases included, to lead effectively. If I were in their shoes, and I am not, I’d seriously consider passing on the baton to a new generation of leaders to infuse vigour, energy and fresh hope among the workers, supporters, people at large.

In their current frame of mind, challenging what its supporters in the media call a hybrid regime is not on any opposition leader’s agenda. That work is being done by a handful of activists on their own at great personal peril. Kudos to them for keeping hope alive in these rather dark times.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2020