Silencing as the accepted state policy

One has to ask in utter bewilderment: Why so much love for silence?

Social media is criticized for being an echo chamber, for being a bubble. Social media at best can provide a semblance of dispassionate discussion, nothing more, goes the popular standpoint. The inability of social media to herald a long-lasting change is something which has to make everyone skeptical of social media as a viable alternate to ground activism. Social media triggered the Arab Spring, but due to lack of a hierarchal leadership and disorganized, distributed opinion-making – as is inherent to the platform of social media – soon the Arab spring turned into a preface to ruthless dictatorships. Counter-revolutions are always part of the revolutionary cycle, but a revolution worked out, and has seeds that survive.

However, social media plays two important roles. It amplifies local voices and allows voices to be raised for local issues, while also providing this raised voice an audience that defies every frontier or any mode of censorship. Because of this, states like Pakistan, where mainstream media has internalized self-censorship and cannot afford social media to run free. Social media can and does provide breathing space in contrast to the suffocating claptrap of electronic and print media for issues, which the state doesn’t wish to be even touched upon. In Pakistan there are plenty of such issues, ranging from covert support to terrorist outfits to mass human rights violations in FATA and Balochistan.

When conscientious individuals, frustrated by lack of due coverage of human rights issues, take upon social media to voice their criticism of state policies, they are considered a direct threat to the cornerstone on which dualistic policies are made.  The tragedy of an ideology rooted in fear is that innocuous acts are equated with acts of treason. The tragedy of a policy born out of ill-will to others is that any logical and reasoned deconstruction of that policy warrant the powers to execute a disproportionate response; disproportionate to the extent that laws are often broken.

Three activists have gone missing. Salman Haider, Ahmad Waqas and Asim Saeed broke no law, did no wrongdoing, never breached the limits set by constitution and certainly they never were a threat to the state’s policies, nor had they planned to disrupt the state’s implementation of its policies. They only exercised their right as enshrined in Constitution of Pakistan to express themselves freely. When there is not even a semblance of debate or open-ended discussion on how a state is carrying on its policies in certain areas then, no matter how much democracy is claimed to be the polity, at the core that system is a dictatorship.

The crimes of these three men are that of defying the imposed silence and their audacity to lend their voice to those voiceless. Arundhati Roy once formulated that there is no such thing as voiceless people, there are deliberately silenced people instead. These three men, like many of their compatriots, were lending their voice to the deliberately silenced people. If that is a crime then it begs the question: is deliberately silencing also a crime on part of the powers that exist or the state?

The infamous pseudonym of namaloom afraad is a perfect garb for impunity. Any heinous crime can be committed in the name of namaloom afraad and right at that instant the state will abdicate its responsibility of providing security to its citizens. These three men are abducted by namaloom afraad and everyone knows who namaloom afraad can be in a case-to-case basis.

This is the harsh reality of the state of affairs we live in. Salman Haider, who always voiced his concern for missing persons once said, “I don’t know who was behind the killing. But I know who had to protect.” Likewise I don’t know who took them but I know who had to protect them and now who are responsible for recovering them: the government, the state.

The state now has ample legal devices at its disposal to try anyone accused of anti-state activity with minimal evidence. But namaloom afraad always target a specific section of critics and a specific section of activists. The state should know that instead of protecting proclaimed absconders from justice and persons who are sanctioned by other nations, protecting conscientious individuals who give their opinion based on facts and real-human empathy is more important.

Silence is never a solution. Silence is a license to impunity. If individuals who are breaking silence on specific taboos go missing, it only proves the popular perception that state’s policies regarding these issues are wrong and the state needs to open them up for discussion.

Salman Haider, Ahmad Waqas, Asim Saeed were not silent on those issues and the onus now is on the state to ensure their safe recovery. No matter how forceful a silence is, it can always be broken by the tiniest flutter of a bird’s wing. And Salman Haider is that bird if compared to the machinery of state.

 One has to ask in utter bewilderment: Why so much love for silence?

Hurmat Ali Shah is a freelance writer interested in intersection of culture, politics and society. He can be reached at Follow him on Facebook