At 4 AM on Saturday the 9th of February, law enforcement officers in plain clothes raided the home of Dr. Ammar Ali Jan and took him to an undisclosed location. After several hours, Dr. Jan was taken to the Gulberg Police Station in Lahore before finally producing him before a court where he was granted bail. What crime had been committed by this mild-mannered academic that would warrant a dawn raid and immediate incarceration? What could this graduate of the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge, one of Pakistan’s brightest young historians, have done to deserve such treatment? The answer, as it turns out, is not much; Ammar Jan has had a case registered against him for simply attending and speaking at a protest in support of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement where questions were asked about the completely unjustifiable and brutal killing by the police of the peaceful and unarmed activist Arman Loni just a week ago.

For months, journalists and activists have been raising the alarm about the increasing censorship and stifling of dissent that is characterising ‘Naya’ Pakistan. Now that all state institutions are apparently on the same page, it appears that the decision has been taken to simply dispense with democratic niceties and do away with the notion that things like ‘rights’ or ‘laws’ matter. Instead, it is being made abundantly clear through arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and killing, that those who refuse to toe the line and regurgitate the narrative being pushed by the state will be ruthlessly punished for their efforts. Through the cynical deployment of ridiculous concepts like ‘Fifth Generation Warfare’ and the relentless dissemination of falsehood and propaganda, a nation that has long been fed a constant diet of paranoia and conspiracy has now been primed to view any critical voices in the public sphere as being dangerous and, indeed, treasonous. The act of asking questions, regardless of their validity or importance, has been criminalised.

In the past, those occupying the highest offices of state and those in the upper echelons of power have conceded that the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement has legitimate grievances. Regardless of the view one might take on the movement, that it articulates sentiments rooted in the lived experiences of those who have suffered tremendously in the name of national security cannot be denied, just as allegations of its links to shadowy foreign powers (links that have yet to be substantiated or proven in any meaningful way) do not detract from the fundamental issues that underpin its rise to prominence. Independently even of this, the manner in which Arman Loni was killed is unconscionable, particularly in the wake of the Sahiwal Massacre that saw the Punjab police mercilessly gun down an unarmed family in a case of mistaken identity. Any right-thinking person with a shred of empathy would agree that demanding accountability and answers in these cases is completely and totally justified; when the state and its instruments kill with impunity, is it unreasonable to demand that such a tremendous abuse of power not be tolerated?

Apparently, though, it is. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the events of the past few months, it is that if you take up arms against the state and slaughter tens of thousands in the name of God, you will be embraced as ‘estranged’ brothers (to use a phrase popularised by Imran Khan) and invited to discussions and negotiations, or that if you happen to be a hired gun in uniform working to protect the interests of your paymasters in power, you will be treated with utmost courtesy and respect (as has been the case with Rao Anwar). However, should you choose to engage in peaceful, unarmed protest, a right guaranteed by the constitution, you will be subject to night-time raids on your homes, guns in your faces, and boots on your necks. If you are particularly unlucky, you will simply disappear.

On TV and on social media, the government has been remarkably reticent about all of this. For a party that never shies from an opportunity to tout its commitment to the rule of law when discussing the prosecution of its political opponents, the PTI has surprisingly little to say about the flagrant violation of the rights of Pakistan’s citizens by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In the past week alone, in addition to Ammar Jan and television anchor Razi Dada (picked up on the same day), 17 activists belonging to the PTM have also been arbitrarily detained and have yet to be granted bail. The government, however, has been content to do nothing, taking credit for the release of one PTM activist (Gulalai Ismail) while simultaneously presiding over some of the worst repression of civil liberties since the darkest days of authoritarian rule in this country.

Some may be tempted to suggest, not incorrectly, that the civilian government has very little power over these matters and that its hands are tied by the powers-that-be. This is besides the point; if nothing else, Imran Khan and his government could make some noise about what is happening and at least move in the direction of challenging the soft authoritarianism engulfing Pakistan. Indeed, doing so would make political sense since the alternative would be to reduce the space available to the civilian government even further. That the Prime Minister and his party cannot even do this much suggests that they either do not care or actively condone what is happening. Again, this is perhaps unsurprising given the regressive nature of the PTI’s politics and ideology, the fascistic tendencies of a significant section of its base, and the moral cowardice of its leadership. What more could one realistically expect from a government whose minister for human rights is happy to tweet condemnation of every atrocity under the sun but cannot muster the courage to do the same when it comes to Pakistan itself.

Dr. Ammar Jan’s arrest is not the first incident of its kind to have taken place in Pakistan in recent years and is sadly not likely to be the last. The saddest thing is that, ironically, it is precisely through criticism and questioning that Pakistan can be made stronger; blindly following those in power simply reproduces the status quo and circumvents the need for introspection, and it is people like Dr. Ammar Jan who state the uncomfortable truths that must be acknowledged if Pakistan is to have a better, brighter, and more progressive future. It is not treasonous to demand that citizens be protected from the arbitrary power of the state, or that the government do its best to provide rights and justice to those who have been oppressed and marginalized. The true crime is attacking those who make these demands.


The writer is an assistant professor

of political.