When the first constitution of Pakistan was being debated, several members of the Constituent Assembly wanted the then recently-passed Universal Declaration of Human Rights to become a part of the future constitution. The government benches, however, opposed the idea and insisted that their draft already included the rights guaranteed by the declaration and that it would be superfluous to also include it in the Constitution. When I first read these debates, I thought it was a typical tussle between the government and opposition benches. However, a closer look has pointed out deep philosophical differences which have a strong bearing on how Pakistan developed in later years.
Many people in Pakistan consider philosophy to be idle talk. But philosophy is the basis on which a society is formed and developed. This lack of interest is clear from the rather lacklustre philosophy departments at Pakistani universities.
One reason for this dearth is that we do not guarantee one very central ‘freedom’ in our Constitution — that of freedom of ‘conscience’ (or thought). US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N Cardozo succinctly defined the importance of this freedom when he wrote in a 1937 judgment, “Freedom of thought … is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.” Without freedom of thought one cannot hope to fully enjoy the other freedoms of life, liberty and expression. A person who cannot think freely is not free at all. Freedom of conscience was one of the basic freedoms derived in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which brought peace to Europe after almost a century of warfare and is enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Since the right to thought is such an integral part of one’s being, the lack of such a guarantee in Pakistan is one of the primary causes for our existential crisis. Even more critical is the linkage between freedom of thought and the dignity of human beings. What kind of a human being is one who cannot think for him/herself? One of the basic differences between humans and animals is the presence of reason, the essential ingredient for freedom of thought in humans. If limitations on the exercise of reason and thinking exist in a country, how can that country really progress? Taking each human being as a completely free and rational being, able to make his/her own decisions, is one of the basic building blocks of a just society.
The history of Pakistan is, sadly, a story of how every government — be it military or political — has tried to deny the freedom of conscience to the people. Every government has asserted that it knows the answers and that the people are irrational beings who cannot think for themselves and, therefore, need to be guided like sheep. From the distrust of democracy publicly declared by Ghulam Mohammad and Iskandar Mirza, to the claim that Western democracy was unsuitable for Pakistan by Ayub Khan, to the controlling regime of Zulifkar Ali Bhutto, the denouement of parliamentary democracy in favour of a Majlis-e-Shoora by Ziaul Haq and the near declaration of himself as Ameer ul Momineen by Nawaz Sharif in 1999, Pakistan has always had leaders who have not treated its population as free and rational agents. The negligence continuously shown towards the social sciences and humanities, the basic ‘thinking’ disciplines, is a testament to this persistent tendency. Even in the present government’s laudable Eighteenth Amendment, while the right to education, free and fair trial and information have been guaranteed, the government has shirked from introducing the freedom of conscience, something which India, for example, has guaranteed from the start.
Benjamin Franklin once noted in 1722: “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom.” This absence is all the more evident in Pakistan these days.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2012.
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