Dissent is the essence of democracy

In the early phase of our history, the religious fundamentalists forced the ‘Objectives Resolution’ upon the govt

Syed Akhtar Ali Shah April 03, 2019
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. PHOTO: BBZ/ Instagram

The issue of equating dissenting voices with treason is again making headlines with Bilawal’s hard-hitting criticism of government’s policies and the official response. Bilawal has boldly brushed aside government’s ‘traitor’ certificates after he raised questions over the government’s lukewarm performance in implementing National Action Plan. The clear and well-targeted comments of Bilawal have been greeted with a pleasant surprise by those who are apprehensive of the rising fascist tendencies in the country. Such youthful voices are needed to offer some defiance to the menacingly growing power structure of centralist tendencies that want to impose their own brand of patriotism by gagging all voices of dissent.

Right he is when he says, “Is life now a fascist screenplay where if you don’t follow a script you are declared a traitor?” Pakistan’s history is in fact replete with accounts of declaring opponents traitors and corrupt. However, such attitudes — instead of generating any bond of patriotism — set centrifugal forces into motion. Don’t we remember that on the question of official language, the Bengalis who voiced for Bangla to be a second official language were forcibly silenced with bullets, reddening the roads of Dacca with the blood of Bengali students? Many historians today agree that the seeds of secession were sown when it was announced that “Urdu and Urdu alone will be the official language”. Later Husain Shaheed Suharwardy was also labeled as a traitor for dissenting with the official paradigm and was deprived of his National Assembly seat. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the principled freedom fighter, also attracted the wrath of ruling establishment and labels of traitor as he differed on many issues. Not only was he tormented by the British colonial government, but his hardship continued even after the British left. GM Syed, the mover of the resolution in Sindh Assembly to join Pakistan, fared no differently and had to earn the ire of the ruling power all through his life for demanding provincial autonomy. The three pillars of the ruling paradigm of patriotism can be identified as strong Centre, Urdu and religiosity. Sadly, throughout the history of Pakistan the demand for genuine provincial rights even within the constitutional framework was construed as inimical to the integrity of the country.

In the early phase of our history, the religious fundamentalists forced the ‘Objectives Resolution’ upon the government. The power game within the ruling elite got exposed in the form of fomenting anti-Ahmadi riots by Mumtaz Ahmad Doultana, the then chief minister of Punjab, to topple the federal government and become the prime minister. The riots, as anticipated could not be controlled and therefore martial law had to be imposed. The period between 1953 and 1956 witnessed political turmoil and instability; there was a scramble for power between the governor general and the prime minister with a tussle between the provinces. Each political group tried to strengthen its position by forging alliance with religious groups with an ever-increasing role of the ulema in constitution making. The 1956 constitution was the compromise between the western secular state held by the westernised elite and the ulema, naming the state, the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”.

Suffering from illegitimacy, successive rulers entered into alliances with the US with the naked purpose of containing communism in the region and later on even proclaiming ‘Holy Jihad’ against the infidels in Afghanistan. Our Afghan policy also forced us to whip the rhetoric of Jihad in order to recruit and organise non-state actors. This, however, proved counterproductive as in the process a large segment of society got radicalised and thousands of citizens fell victim to the terrorism of those elements that had been organised to wage Jihad abroad. Unfortunately, thanks to the activities of these extremist elements, we ended up earning names like “safe haven”, “epicenter of terrorism” and “the most dangerous place in the world”. To make matters worse, correlated to that syndrome was the policy of zero tolerance for any form of dissent. Fascism in this context is nothing but a perverted form of narrow nationalism where individual liberty has no place, and everyone is required to merge in the name of the state. History had witnessed the horrific stories of Gestapo sleuths knocking at the doors of the dissenting voices and then making them disappear. Survival in the Nazi era was for only those who were ready to shout wholeheartedly “Hail Hitler”. Should we also accept such an environment? Certainly not, as the very essence of modern era is individualism and provision of a conducive environment wherein citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2019.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.