The imperative of subversion
THE passing of the so-called ‘Fair Trial’ Bill in the National Assembly this past week should have raised eyebrows.
Notwithstanding its name, the legislation will empower state agencies to intercept private communications under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Some have argued that the bill represents a boost to democratic forces that want to rein in the religious right. If only the world were so simple. The very agencies being empowered to take on the right have hardly demonstrated an unambiguous commitment to ‘fighting terror’.
In fact, they themselves are believed to perpetrate terror on an almost everyday basis. It can indeed be argued that the security officials will now have a legal mandate to do what they have been doing illegally for years.
Balochistan is a case in point. The so-called ‘missing persons’ issue has predictably faded from the public spotlight in recent months, but in the short period that it was headline news it became common knowledge that our holy guardians have been kidnapping, torturing and killing Baloch political activists with impunity for years.
Much has been made of the Supreme Court’s rendering of services to the Pakistani people over the past few years but much less is said about its failures. The ‘missing persons’ case falls into the latter category. The court was neither able to provide meaningful relief to the long-suffering families of disappeared Baloch political activists nor bring to account the high-ranking security officials who are responsible for the brutalisation of Baloch society.
From time to time these very high-ranking officials claim that all talk of a military operation in Balochistan is just hyperbole, and that in fact all of the unrest in the province is the handiwork of ‘terrorists’ that are taking advantage of the Baloch people.
In fact a relatively wide cross-section of politicians have acknowledged that there is indeed serious disaffection within Baloch society, and that it is no longer possible to sweep the problem under the proverbial carpet. It is therefore unfortunate that many of these same politicians have un-problematically approved a bill which allows the coercive apparatus of the state to whitewash its crimes against the people of Balochistan.
It is of course not just in Balochistan that the state has arrogated to itself the right to bomb ordinary people into the Stone Age. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata, which are the major staging grounds of the so-called ‘war on terror’, the ‘extremists’ are not alone in terrorising ordinary people.
In the post-military operation Swat, for instance, the persistence of an uneasy quiet betrays the regular violations of basic human rights by none other than our holy guardians.
In Pakhtun regions too the haplessness of our political class is all too apparent. The recent assassination of Bashir Bilour has only confirmed what we already knew. In the wake of the murder, leaders of the ANP have reiterated their commitment to ‘taking on the militants’. In truth, the ANP has limited control over whom the military chooses to confront and who it does not.
To be sure, the country’s political leadership has little meaningful influence over state policy vis-à-vis Balochistan, Fata, or, for that matter, Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and other ‘strategic’ zones.
Historically, the Pakistani state (read: civil and military bureaucracy) has viewed such regions — and the people that inhabit them — in purely functional ways. A real shift in the rules of business in Pakistan will take place only when the needs of the people of these regions become the object of state policy.
Unfortunately, the chances of such a fundamental shift taking place in the contemporary period are limited. It is not just in Pakistan that the imperative of security is trumping all other social, economic and political concerns.
Ruling classes everywhere have greatly expanded their apparatuses of coercion since 9/11. In countries like Pakistan the global discourse around ‘terrorism’ makes an already bad situation much worse.
Supporters of mainstream parties such as the ANP and PPP who have made the ‘war on terror’ their own have argued that there is a need to unapologetically condemn terrorism and develop a broad consensus within society in this regard. But these parties are themselves part of a power game which precludes them from identifying the biggest perpetrators of terror, both in the Pakistani context and at a global level.
Calling a spade a spade is not tantamount to spreading confusion. In fact what we need more than ever is clarity on who is propagating the myth — and there is not just one — of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban. We need to move beyond the idea that we can address intolerance and millenarian violence only through military means.
This is precisely why there should have been much more public debate on the ‘Fair Trial’ bill. Unfortunately, such matters cannot compete with the sensationalism that otherwise dominates the airwaves and newspaper columns. Indeed, most Pakistanis are unaware about the legislation, or its political significance, let alone the fact that it directly impacts them.
It is true that the media and intelligentsia are in large part responsible for this lack of informed public debate about this particular bill and the phenomenon of ‘terrorism’ more generally.
Yet I want to reiterate that a vast majority of politicians — including those in parliament —– do not take seriously their roles as educators of the public, which, as elected representatives, is one of the many positions of responsibility that they occupy.
It is no good to harp on about democracy and the transition to a ‘welfare state’ (in the form of initiatives such as the Benazir Income Support Programme) if the very discourse of national security — and, by extension, the coercive apparatus — is not definitively challenged over an extended period of time.
Politicians operating within the mainstream who are constrained by the imperatives of power need to think much more deeply about the various means through which the recalibration of civil-military relations can take place.
In particular there is an urgent need to establish and then consolidate a sphere of critical and public debate. The people of Pakistan will only be empowered when the institution that represents them — the legislature — includes them in the process of lawmaking. Parliament must challenge the imperative of security; indeed, it must subvert it, by all means necessary.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.