After the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen in Pakistan and some of the activists of Shaheen Bagh in India, there is a lot of hue and cry on civil rights and how both countries are squeezing space for dissent. People are being called traitors, tukre tukre gang, and leftists. The interesting part is that India is concerned about the citizens of Pakistan; Pakistan is concerned about the citizens of India; and Afghanistan is concerned about citizens of the Pakistan; but none of them are concerned about their own citizens. States tend to propagate only the side of the story that suits their national interest, ideology and beliefs. In fact, this is normal in the international arena as well. The primary reason for this behaviour of states is “order” — an aspect defined by authoritative state structures, controlled by selective individuals.
The 21st century has hurled the world into the post-truth era where appeal to logic and a policy-based narrative of the state is losing ground to populist discourse thanks to smartphones and the internet. Every individual has a voice and wants to be heard in the cyberspace. The old gup shup on the streets has now become part of the political debate and decision making. If you have any doubts, follow Trump’s tweets.
There is also a need to understand the transformation of power structures and their effect on the functioning of the state and governance. Not long ago, revolutions needed a long campaign and a gathering of critical mass. In some cases like Mao’s Long March, it would take years to take shape.
Things have changed now. Within 24 hours you can create a Tahrir Square through social media, propagate your manifesto, slogans and what gear to carry in case of a police crackdown. While the internet has given unprecedented reach and flexibility to Generation X and the Millennials, it has also created a conducive environment for strategic chaos. Some of the failed models of social media revolts are visible on the streets of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ukraine.
States are in the process of coping with the challenge of cyber chaos. State authority can be challenged over a “difference of opinion” — be it faith, ideology, philosophy, class, or even governance. The post-truth era has added the factor of bias into the discourse and one cannot change the mindset of a Trumpster, Sanghi, Youthia or a Patwari as everyone has a certain level of bias.
In this era, everyone thinks they are better than others, disregarding the fact that the other person might be an expert on a subject while they themselves just looked up the first page of Wikipedia and entered a debate. In 2013, Time identified these as the “Me Me Me Generation”, highlighting that Millennials have come of age in the era of the quantified self, recording their daily steps and whereabouts every day on social media.
Are we entering into what Thomas Hobbs called “bellum omnium contra omnes” (war of all against all) in his masterpiece, Leviathan? Having no authoritative structure, bad or good, a state will be in an everlasting loop of perpetual chaos where every individual will have authority to do whatsoever.
In modern dynamics, when the likes of Trump and Modi are elected by the masses, it raises more questions on democracy as, at the end of the day, it is the rule of “the majority”; and irrespective of individuals having a choice of selection, his bias was defeated by another bias. Even if he/she were to scream and fight, they will be crushed under the weight of majoritarianism — an aspect proudly practised all around the world, but one no one likes to admit exists.
History supports this argument. Clans in a divided Mongolia joined an authoritative figure, Genghis Khan; people of Germany supported Hitler; Joseph Stalin justified his actions against dissent; and Mao climbed the hierarchy ladder through a revolution supported by millions. The only difference is how these are reflected in history. But then isn’t history written by the victor with the blood of the loser? In history, Jews were thrown in concentration camps by Nazi Germany. So were the Japanese by a democratic US. The only difference is that history tells the tale of American values of freedom and how the US protected democracies of the world, yet negates the fact that a democratic nation was working on a racial superiority agenda.
You can be a peace-loving liberal, secular, leftist, rightist or extremist but if a mere cricket match boils you up inside, that is where you will realise that there is perpetual bias in everyone and that’s fine, because it’s human nature. Human rights organisations or individuals behave similarly. As long as a certain segment of society propagates their narrative, they will defend them but remain silent on issues incompatible with their agenda. The main problem regarding dissent is that it will always be selective.
A good case in point is the PTM and its associates which — although based on civil rights and political movement — would never openly condemn the perpetual occupation of Afghanistan by extra-regional powers and the suppression of their Pashtun brethren and other ethnicities within Afghanistan. Many prominent figures agree on specific demands of the PTM. However, there is a big difference between a civil rights movement and a racial or ethnic superiority nationalist movement and they would definitely have justifications of their stand on economic issues, social dominance of one ethnicity over another and lineages towards the establishment. The Lar o Bar concept has nothing to do with rights and so is the tongue-in-cheek slur against Punjabis and how they were born. Some of the leading PTM stalwarts and their supporters have openly stated their anti-Punjabi bend, at times in racial tones — this needs some introspection.
But then the state also has misplaced justifications to oppress such political movements. After all, the state is the authoritative body being run by powerful people with different opinions and ideologies. The Afghan imbroglio and its indirect effect on the Pashtun population in bordering areas is a sad story of perpetual war imposed upon the region by outside powers. The issues being raised by the PTM may have substance, but these have a background of foreign interference in the Af-Pak region.
The Pakistani state has paid a huge cost in blood and money to bring back stability to erstwhile Fata and Balochistan and would never want another chaotic situation within her borders. Negotiators on both sides i.e. the PTM and the state should try to bridge the gap rather than hammering each other. Mind you, when the state says it’s being protective, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a fact. So is the PTM claiming that they are a peaceful movement? One can’t run away from the other. The fact is that the Arab Spring began as a peaceful movement which destroyed one-third of the Middle East.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2020.