IT may be coincidental or planned, but several new initiatives have emerged recently which, if not challenged, may create a more docile society.
Modern states, dominated by and representing the interests of small powerful forces, often struggle to impose order and exact compliance from marginalised and upset masses. While they usually possess huge force, most states don’t use it to impose order given its human costs. Gramsci, a 19th-century Marxist philosopher, explained the concept of hegemony under which these forces get masses to non-violently accept the state’s writ. They do so by using tools of indoctrination to get masses to accept their self-serving worldviews as beneficial for masses too. This is done by controlling the main arenas that shape the views of citizens in society, including education, media, religion, civil society, law and politics.
Pakistan has struggled even more to impose order with its top-down governance, diverse society, short history as a state and some gaps in the two-nation theory used for justifying statehood. Ignoring global wisdom, the state here, like other states unable to adopt smarter strategies, has often used force to impose order with tragic results in 1971 and over the decades in Balochistan. I may be wrong but it almost seems now as if some elements have finally gotten hold of and even managed to decode Gramsci’s complex and dense ideas on how hegemony is imposed.
So while the use of force continues, new initiatives have come up that seemingly aim to use indoctrination to curb free thinking after the more open era of 2008-2018. Not that such indoctrination is new. In some regions, the state since Zia has already succeeded in producing masses that react regressively to a religio-national discourse and who can no longer distinguish between rational truth and rhetorical untruths. The result is economic, political and social decay.
Some see an attempt to marginalise even conservative parties
Yet there are larger swathes of periphery regions where critical thought as well as huge dissent and anger at state excesses still exist. Is the aim to dry out all these pesky pools of resistance?
So there is increased propaganda against the media to paint critical voices as unpatriotic and serving foreign inimical interests. There are bans and even attacks on and disappearances of especially nosy and critical journalists and activists. Finally, there is the proposed Pakistan Media Development Authority to control media via heavy fines perhaps to ‘develop’ journalists more in line with state views.
In education, there is the Single National Curriculum, whose aim appears to be to encourage homogenous thinking. The content relies heavily on rote memory and glorifying a state-sponsored conservative religio-nationalism. It includes religious content even in some secular subjects attended by students of other faiths. Civil society groups and activists have also faced renewed scrutiny and ire. The registration process for NGOs has been tightened and many have been delisted. Often there are reports of grassroots progressive activists being beaten up or disappearing. The credibility of activists too is undermined by calling them unpatriotic foreign agents. There is an attempt to impose a regressive social code on women with the leadership’s own talk about purdah and causes of rape.
In politics, some see an attempt to marginalise even conservative parties showing limited freedom like the PML-N and sterner action against more critical political groups like the PTM. Allegations of election rigging, repeated even by the foreign neutral umpire EU, and politically motivated accountability and arrests that the Supreme Court once had to call political engineering abound. Finally, some see attempts to weed out independent judges.
Many see all this as the most ambitious and concentrated attempt to refashion Pakistani society in decades. Is it happening unwittingly and not by design? In economics, preferred societal outcomes supposedly emerge from the invisible hand of the market. Marxists see the visible arms and biceps of strong political interests controlling the invisible hands of the market even in economics. In our politics, many see the more visible iron hands of strong forces prevailing.
Whatever the origins, such processes cannot succeed in subjugating critical thinking and dissent in a highly diverse society large parts of which are not used to strong centralised control. Such attempts will only deepen divisions and dissent in society and further postpone the emergence of a pluralistic governance system that can intelligently harness the energy and diversity of Pakistani society to usher in progress.
The writer is a political economist with a PhD from Berkeley.
Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2021