Art does not exist merely for the satisfaction of the aesthetic needs of the communities. On the contrary, art has been used as a medium for political expression throughout the known history of mankind. In fact, some may argue that there is no such thing as apolitical art. Be it Max Ernst’s “Europe After the Rain” which depicts the horrors of World War Two or Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” which portrays American forces as imperialistic Napoleon army that are massacring innocent civilians, paintings and art works have a way of encapsulating political statements and public conscience in a manner no other genre can. It is precisely for this reason many art works and artists are banned or exiled by the ruling authorities when the latter come in crosshairs.

A similar shameless episode of state highhandedness was witnessed last Sunday at Karachi Biennale when an installation titled “Killing Fields of Karachi” by Adeela Suleman displayed at Frere Hall was forcibly shut down. The exhibit was about 444 alleged extra judicial killings conducted by Rao Anwar, a former SSP who is under trial for the same. The installation consisted of two parts. One part was the video projection of pictures of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an alleged victim of extra judicial killing, and his father’s interview. The second part consisted of 444 concrete grave stones symbolizing people killed by Anwar in different encounters. Just two hours into a 14-day event, the video installation was shut down and tombstones were smashed into pieces. A press conference condemning state’s action was also obstructed. The installation was temporarily restored by students and activists but was altogether removed when organizers of Biennale suddenly declared that the installation was incompatible with the theme of this year’s Biennale.

Adeela Suleman rightly pointed out in her interview that the installation was approved in advance by the organizers. “How could they not have known what the installation was about when tombstones were being installed in the open over a span of several days?” she retorted in the interview. Disowning of the work by the organizers at such a late stage on the pretext of its incompatibility with the theme of the event is preposterous and conjectures two possibilities. One is that either they were so incompetent that they did not know beforehand what exhibits are being displayed at their event. A second possibility is that they disowned the work under some pressure. It is not difficult for anyone who is aware of the claustrophobic political environment of Pakistan to know which of these possibilities is more likely.

State’s actions, however, suffered from ‘Streisand Effect’ and unintendedly led to the installation’s nationwide coverage which it might not have received otherwise. State must reassess its mindset and refrain from usurping the fundamental liberties of its people. States that protect freedom of expression enable their citizens to come up with innovative ideas and inventions paving way for growth and development. On the contrary, states that try to stamp out free thinking eventually end up inhibiting all forms of innovation leading to stagnation. It is for this very reason developed states are so jealously protective of free speech that sometimes they leave even harmful or socially undesirable speech unchecked since censoring might have a ‘chilling effect’ on the speech state wants to promote and encourage.

State authorities must do some much needed introspection and let the people decide for themselves what they want to see, listen to and believe in. It is only competition among ideas in a free marketplace that can enable truth to come out. The distortion of free market by censorship will lead to obscuration of truth which is detrimental for the society. Moreover, such vicious actions are likely to undermine the state’s moral high ground within the international community at a time when it is trying to label India’s nationalist government as fascist and pointing out the atrocities and censorship of Indian government on the people of Kashmir. What moral authority can Pakistani state claim when it is treating its own artists in this gruesome manner? The kettle can’t call the pot black.

The shrinking of public space in Pakistan and effort of the state to homogenize the thinking of its citizens by imposing state-approved narrative is deeply concerning. It has come to the point when an art installation merely narrating a story is not acceptable, cannot be tolerated and must be snubbed. Freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan is being trampled in the most egregious fashion. Adeela’s installation making a political statement was a form of political speech, the most protected form of speech within the constitutional jurisprudence of freedom of expression. However, state’s highhandedness has no regard for the fundamental rights of its people and rule of law.