Our security obsession
EVENTS over the past two weeks have revealed the degree to which the process of democratisation in Pakistan remains infantile. The cautious optimism, induced by a long-awaited transition from one government to another, masks the degree to which the Pakistani state continues to be seen as distinct from the government manning its various offices.
If there’s one thing that’s clear from the attack on Hamid Mir and the many reactions that followed, it is that Pakistan as an idea and as a lived reality continues to be defined through its army.
This is neither a polemical rant nor ‘liberal whining’. It is a statement of fact empirically verifiable by much that has transpired in the last 67 years. Pakistan is first and foremost a military-centred state. Almost nothing has changed in this basic conception regardless of whatever ornamental transition takes place in the name of democracy.
Several things were quite telling about the frenzy that emerged following the accusations levelled against the ISI. The first was that many media groups jumped at the chance to take a few pot shots at Mir’s employer — an industry behemoth that many have wanted to take down a few notches for some time.
The second was the near-mechanical emergence of pro-army voices on nearly every media outlet. The conversation exploded into questions of integrity, treason, and attacks against the ‘fabric of Pakistan’. Charges and trials were mentioned with fanfare, and the spectre of greater designs and external threats was invoked with wilful abandon.
The third was the spontaneous public mobilisations in Islamabad carried out by traders associations and affiliated civil society groups in ‘defence of the ISI’. Perhaps in a country accustomed to witnessing surreal events, the idea of a group of citizens chanting slogans in support of their country’s intelligence agency appears completely normal.
Several analysts conclude that these valiant defences are formulaic. They appear to be the work of a PR department functioning in overdrive, and made possible by an extensive web of dormant contacts and intermediaries kept in tow for such ‘emergencies’. There is probably a degree of truth in this particular assertion.
The fact that media outlets, political groups, and even civil society groups are close to the military establishment is no secret. That these societal nodes have been utilised for image-building in the past is well documented. What I do think though is that a consistent focus on the active shaping of public conversation masks the degree to which the idea of a state defined by its army has taken root in the popular imagination over almost seven decades.
Hence in ruptures such as this one, there is a genuine impulse amongst many segments of the urban population to rush to the defence of the armed forces, regardless of any nudges they may receive.
The basis of Pakistan’s security-clad worldview emerges from a complete absence of alternate definitions of the state. Apart from a brief interlude and some populist rhetoric a few decades ago, the notion that the Pakistani state was a multi-cultural entity, propped up to serve its own population (irrespective of creed) has never taken root. Sure you have campaign promises, which proffer visions of good governance, uninterrupted electricity, and mass transit projects, but these still appear as electoral gimmicks carried out by politicians in their small corner of a much larger playground.
What has been carefully cultivated and actively imbibed though is this twisted celebration of a sole fact: our state protects us from the machinations of outside forces.
According to the celebrated social scientist, Charles Tilly, this was how states were built 300 years ago. A group of armed individuals would collect taxes from a town, and provide them protection against invaders. The telling fact though was that in a number of cases, the cultivation of a threat of invasion, as opposed to an actual invasion itself, was sufficient to sustain this particularly extractive arrangement for lengthy periods.
Sadly, it says a lot about Pakistan that despite the world having moved from such paternal notions of statehood towards much more developmental, pro-people conceptions, we’re still fixated on conflating national honour, pride, and the very essence of the state with the sanctity of the armed forces.
No other institution, except perhaps the judiciary (and that too fleetingly), holds such a lofty perch in the public imagination. Parliament is ridiculed on a daily basis, disregard for the democratic process is visible across the media and every online forum, and the incompetence of all and sundry is flaunted and normalised in our daily conversations.
And yet there is this one institution, which we are told cannot be subjected to the same treatment. Despite a murky past, despite repeated transgressions in domains beyond its purview, and despite active involvement in the very problems that it now purportedly wants to fix, it retains its hallowed position in the country.
This is not about unsubstantiated accusations or media politics or subversive point scoring, all of which are wrong in their own ways. This is about much deeper notions of how to define the Pakistani state, and the population’s expectations from it. Do we really want to see more of what we’ve seen in the past seven decades, or is it finally time to re-envision an alternative beyond the narrow, security obsessed worldview that we’ve clearly become so accustomed to?
The writer is a freelance columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org