Pakistani politicians ride the merry-go-round as the ticket master watches them play

There is a simple set of rules to our merry go round — don’t speak too much, don’t feel too free.
Published August 29, 2022

When the British created the penal code and the criminal laws and procedures through which they controlled the Indian subcontinent, they did so with the preservation of the colonial order in mind.

After all, there were a few thousand of them lording over hundreds of millions of us. A rigid framework of dominion was hence necessary to the propagation of their rule.

When they left, the class of Pakistanis who took over the role of colonial extraction of national resources kept the British laws and legal system as carefully in place as possible. On the premise that our people were not ready, or that there may be chaos if the standards of liberty were updated, reform was left to another time.

Because it was the easier method of elite capture, these laws were made even more rigorous. As the waves of time struck against social strictures and ground them to dust the world over, we opted instead to cover them with concrete and strengthen them further.

Law of the laathi charge

Pakistanis who have watched cricket games from the general enclosures through the 1990s have perhaps experienced the perfect example of our rule of law — the laathi charge.

An officer in charge of maintaining discipline in an area sees a bunch of youth getting too feisty. He sends in a couple of uniforms to slap rowdy boys about and reduce them to conformity. The few being rowdy now sit down with arms crossed, but many more around them take heart, thinking perhaps that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place; and become louder and more boisterous.

The officer fears it might reflect badly on him if his senior superintendent catches a glimpse of this from the air conditioned boxes. Queue the hand of justice — he sends in all his subordinates to charge at the crowd with sticks and empty the stand. Better safe than sorry. Best yet, empty.

In this collective punishment of the public, decided by a bunch of men in uniform for selfish reasons, lies the perfect example of our systems of governance and justice. The common folk are getting too noisy, hurting the sahab’s ears. The crowd needs to be disciplined, they are looking too rowdy. Smack them about a bit, remind them of their place. Fun is freedom, and too much freedom is dangerous.

Don’t have too much fun

Despite all the changing laws and systems of government, there has been one steadfast constant in the entire history of Pakistan. If you’re having too much fun, the state will find a way to punish you. If you’re getting too big or going too fast, someone from officialdom, wearing shoes they don’t shine themselves, will either step on you or hold you back. If you’re talking too much, the state will remind you of the virtues of silence.

You would think that political parties that have come through an electoral process and enjoy mass support would want to put an end to the oppressive and domineering framework of laws and the state apparatus that facilitates them.

You would think that the PPP, birthed through student unions raging against the machine would do something about the nightmare fusion of the colonisers’ desire for control and religion which gives us our concept of crime and propriety. You would think the PML-N and its ignored middle class merchant voter base would have gotten over seeking tax avoidance and protected their own right to speak.

Of late, the young and the old ‘youth’ of the revolutionary PTI could be taken as promising a new order where you were free to say and think what you wanted.

You would be disappointed, and repeatedly mistaken.

You are free ... almost

Let’s trace one strand of freedom through the past 10 years.

A political push in 2012 during the PPP government gets YouTube banned, because it is the easy thing to do, an easy posture to pose. The tool used at the time, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), realises that this power feels pretty good. So thereafter, it is used by the really powerful to ban and censor at will, despite there being absolutely no legal authority to do so.

No one takes the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) seriously during the PPP era, because media freedom is the one thing they tolerate better than most of the third world. When I say they tolerate it, I obviously don’t mean them, as the Saleem Shahzad incident showed us in 2011. Najam Sethi at the time enjoyed an unimaginable freedom to analyse on television as well as all did, and explained that it was probably an attempt to teach him a lesson that went too far.

Imagine that today. A journalist being able to tell you on television how they think another journalist died due to false imprisonment and torture by the state. Without anyone arresting or disappearing the journalist and without them losing their job.

Then it is 2014 and suddenly it’s the PML-N deciding who can say what by regulating government advertising spend, having learnt a very bitter lesson from the television coverage of the 2013 elections, where they felt they were completely marginalised by a media then drunk on Imran Khan.

Then Hamid Mir gets shot. And Geo decides to get one step ahead in its coverage of whodunnit. Too much freedom, too much speech. Queue the laathi charge. Geo is forcibly shut down, the tax man wakes up against Geo’s ownership, and it’s just never the same again.

Around comes October 2016, and Cyril Almeida writes what could not have been written. ‘Too free!’ cry the overlords, and demand an inquiry into what they call treason. The prime minister sacrifices a senator and an assistant, this paper loses its star writer, and a committee is formed to inquire into the crime of truth.

When the results are shared by the government, they are rejected through a tweet which could never be deleted, and is still available for all to see today.

A rejection announced by the spokesperson of an institution that reports to a secretary who reports to a minister who reports to the prime minister who approved the results that were notified. It is a miracle that the article is still available to read on this website.

It’s all a matter of control

At this emergency inflection point, there is a glaring problem faced by those that matter. What do you do if the civilians control the money that controls the media? You make sure everyone takes the regulator seriously.

Pemra starts issuing ‘opinions’, unfounded in any law, which sound identical to the opinions tweeted by people who want you to protest the taking of Kashmir by standing outside on Fridays.

Along comes top judge Saqib Nisar, who adds further steel to Pemra’s newly forged teeth, using its hollow claims of billions of rupees as a percentage of gross advertising revenue as a sword to dangle over media owners, whom he calls to his court on weekends to scare.

Then comes 2018 and Imran Khan arrives — finally the same page, only hope and saviour. No longer would you need any coercive tool of state control, for the saviour has come — the end that justified all the erstwhile means.

Naya Pakistan, same old story

Under Khan, we have social media journalists picked up and tortured. Imran Khan said at the time that he wasn’t aware who these people were and whether they were journalists.

After Matiullah Jan is picked up and tortured, when the PTI leadership is asked about journalists being abducted, Fawad Chaudhry denies it ever happened and says Mati isn’t a journalist anyway.

This has been replaced with trademark Fawad candor: nowadays, he says it wasn’t his government calling those shots. The problem with Fawad candidly saying something the opposite of what he used to say in power is that it comes without any apology or acceptance of his own misstatements when in power. There is no reconciliation with the lies that came when in power, before the truth that comes when out of power.

The Supreme Court had already called Mati to face their contempt, and when he got there after being released from the enforced disappearance which was blissfully caught on camera, perhaps shortening his ordeal, the court the next day called his claim of abduction ‘alleged’ and never listed his case again.

Absar Alam is shot during Imran Khan’s tenure; and his Twitter followers mock the incident. Today, Imran Khan tells Hamid Mir he never knew this happened.

According to Hamid Mir, who recently met him, Imran Khan thinks he would have been an even bigger hope and saviour had the establishment not rigged the elections to get him less than a simple majority in 2018. The same elections that the entire PTI has defended as the paragon of freedom and fairness, even as the RTS crashed and burned upon all the predictions.

Under Khan, Shehryar Afridi as minister swears he has seen the video footage where heroin is being discovered in Rana Sanaullah’s vehicle, leading to months in pre-trial custody. Today, he swears he was sworn to by a major general that the drugs were there.

His own party members decry the case as bogus and not of their creation. Shehryar is not sorry. He doesn’t feel there is any fault in his actions. When he wasted his vote by ignoring proper procedure in the Senate elections, he wasn’t sorry either. Instead, he blamed the staff for failing to guide him, while also saying he was feeling unwell and had missed his party meetings, which would have reduced the need for guidance.

Under Khan, Pemra banned the speeches of Nawaz Sharif, and the courts were too hesitant to declare it illegal and baseless. Who gives a convict airtime, asked the PTI and Imran in response.

Perhaps the best bits from Imran Khan’s rule were always when he was questioned about the Uighurs or when he was asked about the increasing footprint of the state’s security apparatus. Imran would say the Uighur problem doesn’t exist because his ambassador told him so. As we would learn later, what his ambassador tells him is sometimes different to what his ambassador says he told him.

About surveillance, Imran would then say that he welcomes the monitoring, and that he knows he is monitored as well. Because, according to Imran, this happens the world over and it’s for everyone’s own safety. Whether the world over, the organisations doing the monitoring are as opaque and unanswerable to the people they are supposedly protecting was a question no one dared ask Imran at the time, for fear of the same page laathi charge.

Two steps back

Pemra today, in the age of vote ko izzat do, bans Imran Khan’s speeches from television, as illegally as it did before, but now with the illegal precedent they created with Nawaz to stand upon.

And what does the recently suffering PMLN do?

It adds further fuel to the censorship fire. Nawaz wants Imran ‘sorted’ before he fixes the country and goes for election. This is the Nawaz who, for one brief autumn when the state was actually stepping down on him and refusing to deal, decided he was the second coming of Nelson Mandela and demanded the respect of the vote.

A peculiar form of arbitrariness has also come to define our legal progress. Instead of an evolutionary process, where ridiculously restrictive and anachronistic laws are taken off the books because society should not be subjected to them, they are just ignored and not enforced. Until they are.

By this act of applying or ignoring, our state plays favourites with the people. While keeping the strictures upon them ever present. Just on standby.

Television anchors who got away with years of slander against politicians suddenly find themselves removed from their seats because of making a statement they cannot prove. It’s the Pemra’s opinions or the tax notices to ownership at play.

YouTube journalists who have been abusing the families of politicians they don’t support for years are arrested for far lesser transgressions against the unelected. This comes from our state’s ancient colonial criminal defamation laws, designed to keep the local in his place and to silence him when he asks where the kohinoor went and why it’s in a white person’s crown.

Conspiracy theorists who got away with throwing around false allegations of blasphemy on television suddenly find themselves pursued for defaming the police on YouTube.

Shehbaz Gill, who made a career out of peddling filth against people like Rana Sanaullah when Rana was out of favour with the establishment, is arrested by Rana for daring to take on the establishment. Currently, the big debate is about exactly how he was tortured rather than whether he was tortured.

Designed to conform

These actions and abuses of power are built upon a system of laws designed to control and regulate. They have no place in a country that promises in its Constitution the rights to liberty and expression.

But why is our legal evolution circular?

Because Pakistan pretends to evolve whilst actually being on a merry-go-round. The only thing that changes is the kid whose turn it is to sit on the pony. The pony is pretend. The ride is temporary. The ticket master is permanent. But the children do not know any better. In the time they have to sit on the pony, they feel like they are on top of the world, and that it will never end.

How can Rana Sanaullah, latterly the sufferer of the heroin on footages and formerly the endurer of the forcibly shaved moustache, allow for what is happening to Shehbaz Gill?

How can Nawaz Sharif, who suffered terror charges himself, not be called anything but short sighted when his government attempts to charge Imran khan with terrorism?

Either Nawaz on a pony now thinks the ride won’t stop, or he has such a strong desire for vengeance that he doesn’t care. Or perhaps he knows that it will stop and it will be his turn off the pony and time to throw Rana under the boot yet again, so might as well enjoy it. Because if you don’t get off when you’re told to by the ticket master, beware the long stick he has tucked into his armpit.

But one thing is clear in all our dalliances into Sharif’s mind — that Nawaz is obviously the one calling the shots, because this article has to be published. The ticket master is simply looking at the children play.