The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s Efforts to Silence Dissenters Amplifies Their Causes

In the age of social media, labeling people traitors, infidels and foreign agents doesn’t necessarily inspire the self-censorship it once did.

Daud Khattak
Pakistan’s Efforts to Silence Dissenters Amplifies Their Causes
Credit: Pixbay

The colonial-era relic of “sedition” is being used in present-day Pakistan to whip dissenting politicians, outspoken journalists, writers, poets, artists, lawyers and rights activists. 

The offense is defined in section 124-A of the Pakistan Penal Code that charges citizens with jeopardizing safety and stability of the state, spreading hatred and feelings of disloyalty among the people, and creating public disorder. 

This section, which India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had once termed “highly objectionable and obnoxious,” should have been scrapped after the end of the colonial era that paved way for the emergence of two independent states of India and Pakistan out of British India in 1947. But the legacy, among many others, lingers on to silence opponents and tame the forthright and undaunted.

Charging political opponents with “sedition” by labeling them “ghaddar” (traitor), anti-state, and foreign agents to suppress their voices is an old tactic in Pakistan. But it has touched new heights over the past year due to its arbitrary use to silence the critics and opponents. 

Fatima Jinah, sister of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinah, who is officially known is Quaid-e-Azam or the greatest leader, was among the first who was labelled as a threat to Pakistan. She was then labeled as a foreign agent when she challenged the then -military dictator Ayub Khan. Her death is shrouded in mystery, many believe she did not die a natural death.  

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Also standing in the long row of ghaddars, anti-state and foreign agents are the leaders who suffered years in prisons and lost their wealth and properties before and after the independence of Pakistan. They include Bengali politician and briefly Pakistan’s prime minister, Huseyn Suhrawardy, ethnic Pashtun leaders Ghaffar Khan and Samad Khan, Baloch leaders Ataullah Mengal and Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, and Sindhi politician Ghulam Murtaza Syed. 

“How could you question someone’s patriotism” was the key question raised by a Pakistani court while hearing a case concerning the arrest of civil rights activists in the country’s federal capital Islamabad on January 28.

Justice Athar Minallah, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, then granted post-arrest bail to 23 activists who were protesting the arrest of Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the two-year-old civil rights movement PTM or Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement. Pashteen was arrested in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar on January 27 under five different charges, including conspiracy and sedition.

In what seems to be Pakistan’s new normal, those following the state narrative on national, regional and international issues in toto are the true patriots, while those challenging the official line are reckoned among the ranks of traitors, anti-state, foreign agents. 

This standard of patriotism encompasses a wide range of issues including national politics, regional conflicts, relations with other states, and militant proxies with the fresh addition of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the much-multibillion project involving Chinese investment in infrastructure development. 

It is as easy to understand as this: When former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif questioned the military’s role in supporting proxies, he was loathed as sympathetic toward India and was targeted with a vicious campaign of “Modi Ka Jo Yar Hai, Ghaddar Hai” which means whoever is Modi’s friend, is a traitor. Cyril Almeida, the journalist who reported the 2016 story linked above had to temporarily leave Pakistan. In October 2019, Almeida announced his resignation from Dawn and the end of his Sunday column.  

On the contrary, no feathers were ruffled when Prime Minister Imran Khan told the audience at a think tank event in New York in September 2019 that Pakistan’s army and military spy agency trained al-Qaeda and then maintained links with the militants afterwards. Moreover, it was Imran Khan who wished victory for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with the hope that his  victory will pave way for “some kind of settlement” in Kashmir.  

In fact, traitor, foreign agent and infidel are the time-tested tools being used in Pakistan to silence and vilify opponents. Many of the Taliban who conduct suicidal missions that target individuals, places and political parties have been brainwashed about the faith and religious views of their targets. For them, politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Bashir Bilour, Salmaan Taseer and many others were infidels, out of the ambit of Islam. 

Similarly, once declared as traitor, anti-state or a foreign agent, and that too by the state-backed propaganda machine, an individual or group of individuals not only lose due standing in the society, but also face dire threats to their lives. 

For example, former spokesman for the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Pakistan military’s media wing, Major General Asif Ghafoor warned the PTM leadership that “their time is up” during a wide-ranging news conference at the military’s general headquarters in April 2019, he accused them of getting money from Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). There were times when some nationalist leaders used to be accused of working for and getting money from the Russian KGB. 

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The reasons behind leveling such charges, coupled with raids on houses and offices, abductions and enforced disappearances, is to restrict free speech ranging from individuals to groups and political parties, forums, discussions and debates, opinions and comments, conventional as well as social media. 

The charges and arrests, threats and abductions, taking television shows and interviews off the air and blocking social media accounts are most likely intended to inspire self-censorship. But unlike the past, such measures seem to be proving counterproductive in the age of social media. 

Filmmaker and actor Sarmad Khoosat’s movie Zindagi Tamasha got more publicity on social media when Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors advised him against its release. A radical Islamic group had called for protests against the film, which was scheduled to be released on January 24. 

The same month, authorities raided the offices of a Pakistani publisher and confiscated Urdu translation copies of author Mohammed Hanif’s book. Published in 2008 in English language, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a satire about the mystery surrounding the death of Pakistan military dictator General Zia ul Haq in a plane crash in 1988. News about the raid, with widespread condemnations and people’s quest to get more information about the Urdu-translated version of the book, were everywhere on social media within no time. 

Pashteen’s January 27 arrest, apparently meant to suppress his voice, triggered a debate on social media in Pakistan besides attracting wide coverage internationally. It may have taken him months, if not years, to get such an attention had he not been arrested.

Like Pashteen, a majority of the leaders accused of sedition or labelled as anti-state and foreign agents, demanded their political and social rights guaranteed under the constitution. “We are not seeking a violent revolution, but we are determined to push Pakistan back toward a constitutional order,” Pashteen wrote in a New York Times op-ed in February 2019. 

Then and now, the struggle is the same. Only time has changed. And the changing times demand a change in the approach. Instead of silencing the lawful demands of the peaceful citizens, it is time for the state to accept and recognize their lawful rights. 

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.