• February 23, 2024

Pakistan’s liberty deficit

Recently, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority announced that it was degrading Wikipedia services in the country on account of it not blocking some offensive content online. Later this throttling turned into a blanket ban which eventually was lifted after pushback from the users. Now if you know anything about Wikipedia you know that instead of petitioning its administration for changes, you can easily fix the problem yourself. Of course, blocked websites can be opened using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) but during Imran Khan’s rule, the PTA asked all VPN providers to register with the authorities so that their user data can be acquired at will. Naturally, the main concern during this tenure was the moral and spiritual hygiene of the users because Mr Khan had repeatedly and publicly expressed his concerns about vulgar content available online and through smartphones.

On March 8, the date commemorating international women’s day, where we saw a pre-scheduled annual Aurat (women) March, we also witnessed a Haya (modesty) March by the critics of women’s rights activists. But while there were rumours and threat alerts about the possibility of miscreants hiding within the ranks of the Haya March attacking the Aurat March with acid, the most visible assault was mounted by the state machinery itself. Lahore’s DC initially refused to allow the march to take place out of the fear that it may lead to a clash with the Jamaat-e-Islami. If we can’t protect you, we obviously can shut you down on the day meant for your rights. Then the organisers went to the Lahore High Court which mercifully reversed the ban. Hesitantly the city’s local administration allowed the march to go ahead. But after strong warnings not to allow “controversial participants” among their ranks. What is controversial about a rights march you ask? Answer: whatever hurts our masculine and majoritarian sensibilities. Then in Islamabad, police began baton-charging the protesters and you could tell what the real fears were. Another day, another event, another attack. Jamiat student wing attacked Hindu students celebrating Holi first in Lahore and then in Karachi. This goes against Jamaat’s own claim that it respects minority rights. But the most important element here is the inability of the state to protect them in time.

Please take note of a fourth event too. The PTI’s election rally on March 8 which witnessed clashes between the authorities and the party’s workers. In the end, one party worker was found dead. I have already condemned the death. But this topic and the PTI’s politics merit a separate piece. However, the broader theme of the liberty deficit is already being addressed here.

What are the important aspects of the first three incidents that stand out here? Rights. The right to knowledge, women’s rights and minority rights, all under pressure. And either by the state’s desire to curtail them or then its inability to protect the said rights. Does this ring a bell?

After 9/11 when the questions about the motives or hate of the attackers arose, the UNDP came up with the first Arab Human Development Report. While it seeks to address the human development issues in the Arab world, it resonates with the realities of our society because it shares its Muslim character with the Arab societies. The report identified three key deficits in the human development of these countries. The knowledge deficit, the gender equality or women empowerment deficit and freedom deficit. You will notice that the first episode above is about the first deficit. The second corresponds with the second deficit and the third broadly with the third. When the report came out in 2002 I repeatedly highlighted these conclusions in my columns. The question then arises if the prognosis is so clear and self-evident why hasn’t anyone done anything about it?

One way to answer this question is to attribute it to the authoritarian muscle memory of our post-colonial state. Despite seventy-five years of independence our state continues to rely heavily on the laws and state machinery left behind by colonial rule. These laws and methods of governance are extractive and regressive in nature. Even then they do not explain away the state’s impulse to turn a blind eye to the excesses of the religious zealots and treat everyone on the receiving end of these abuses at best as a liability. To seek deeper understanding we need a coherent piece of work that approaches such questions systematically.

Fortunately in Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, we find just the right work for this purpose.

There are three noteworthy terms you need to remember here, dominance, leviathan and the cage of norms. Dominance as self-evident is the desire of individuals or groups to dominate others. Leviathan is Hobbes’ term for the state. The leviathan can be further subcategorised into despotic and shackled leviathans. The former defines an authoritarian state, the latter a democratic one with checks and balances. The cage of norms is a set of norms appropriate to one’s place in the caste or class structure of a society. One more term also deserves to be discussed here even though to seek an explanation you need to consult another book, Francis Fukuyama’s Identity. And as you have no doubt guessed the term is also identity.

When Pakistan was created it was escaping the dominance of a Hindu majority in India. It did whatever it could to individuate and separate itself from India. If India was to be secular it did not want any truck with secularism. This is how the religious character got baked into the country’s identity. Later expediency ensured that the cage of norms swells and religious elements learn to dominate every power structure, which includes our leviathan which turned despotic and does not want to accept, beyond mere lip service, that the efforts to homogenise the society perforce have failed and diversity demands a behaviour change.

In this context the patchwork quilt that we call our social contract or constitution needs some radical changes. But those who want to change it only want the change to do away with its strengths, not weaknesses. For instance, they have an issue with the federal character of the constitution and its reliance on the parliamentary form of democracy. Abolishing both these aspects will wreak havoc on the relationship between the smaller federating units and the federation. But nobody with power and privilege wants to bring about the changes which fix the imbalance that favours a small minority with a religious bent. Without that, all our deficits will keep growing. A country which cannot mainstream half of its population (women), protect the three per cent of its most vulnerable (religious minorities) or ensure access to knowledge for its hundred per cent population cannot go far. I don’t think we are anywhere near a point where we can address these issues.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2023.

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