Friday, April 10, 2015

Daily Times Editorial April 11, 2015

Deafening silence Strange are the ways of the Islamic Republic. Since at least 2008, the public has been regaled day and night by the mantra that Pakistan has now turned its back on military coups and dictatorships and embarked on its journey towards democracy. It goes without saying that no democracy worth the name can be acceptable in which freedom of expression, speech, opinion, information is not available. Although Pakistan has taken seven league strides down that path compared with its unenviable past of draconian censorship, it appears that the ‘censorship’ demon has not yet been fully exorcised. Its ghost continues to haunt our lives. Take for example the inexplicable ‘cancellation’ by the establishment of an academic discussion in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) scheduled for April 9. A day before the event, the establishment sent two operatives of an intelligence agency to see the Chancellor of the university. Since the Chancellor was abroad, they saw the head of department of the Social Sciences Department under whose auspices the event was to be held and told him in unequivocal terms that the discussion (called a Roundtable) could not be held. When the head of department tried to reason and negotiate with them, offering them a choice of speakers acceptable to them, the agency people made it very clear that there was no room for negotiation and that either the event should be cancelled or its organisers and participants would be arrested since there was a grave danger that Pakistan would be maligned in any such discussion. Wonders will never cease. Now it appears that an intellectual exchange in a prestigious university well known for its high standards of probity and objectivity poses a threat to Pakistan. This is paranoia gone berserk. If the establishment was really so petrified of any such discussion ‘getting out of hand’, there were subtler and more polite means available to achieve the objective, provided the objective was to ‘correct’ any wrong or misconceived ideas about the topic at hand: Balochistan. Why such sensitivity regarding a problem that has existed on Pakistan’s political radar for years on end? Does the official view hold that by silencing the intelligentsia, the problem will simply go away? As it is, the situation in Balochistan is extremely difficult to report on. Access to the media is limited to a few cities. The interior of the province is virtually out of bounds, confining the ongoing nationalist insurgency in the mountains and countryside to oblivion. The media in Pakistan has gained unprecedented freedom in our history and is playing an important role in educating and informing the public about all matters national and international. Yet it cannot penetrate the black hole that Balochistan has been relegated to. The LUMS faculty and students sought to be educated and informed on what exactly the problem was. Would that have ‘subverted’ the purposes of the state? If that was indeed the fear, why did not the establishment accept the offer of speakers chosen by them to provide ‘balance’? Surely there are many bright sparks ready and willing to rise to the defence of the powers that be in our society. Had a healthy debate on the issue been allowed, as the LUMS alumni wished, the heavens would not have fallen. What our heavy handed agents failed to realise was that healthy and open debate, even on the most vexed issues, is often more useful for the formulation of a wise and efficacious policy than the silence of the graveyard. The LUMS faculty and students are up in arms at this gross violation of academic freedom, freedom of thought, opinion and expression in what is billed as a democratic Pakistan. On the evidence of this episode, it appears that these freedoms are ‘allowed’ only in some areas. Shedding light on what is one of the oldest and most vexed political issues in Pakistan’s history it appears is not amongst them.

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