Most days, in Pakistan, we are consumed by the obsession of defending our physical, religious, and existential frontiers. The ongoing war in Pakistan – against extremism, unemployment, illiteracy, and an entrenched culture of bigotry – is being waged for the reclamation of a lost national ethos. Our continuing and jaded efforts – from the blood-soaked soil of Karachi to the rugged peaks of Waziristan – are all a desperate attempt to rekindle the flickering flame of extinguishing hope.
But, despite the spilling of innocent blood, a deliberate effort to guard and expand the empire of our intellectual dominion remains lost, somewhere in this myriad of convoluted battles. In our endeavor to protect the “sanctity” and “integrity” of our religion and the State, we have systematically stamped out all voices of dissent that challenged the prevalent narrative, and had the potential of infusing tolerance into our democratic dispensation.
In the latest episode of one such event, a panel discussion organized in the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), titled “Un-Silencing Baluchistan”, was hastily “cancelled” on the pretext of “orders from the government”.
Prior to commenting any further, it is imperative to disclose that I am a visiting faculty member at LUMS. However, fortunately, I have neither been involved in the planning of this event, nor been part of any of the subsequent protests. This piece represents only my personal views, and is neither indicative of the official stance of LUMS administration, nor does it reflect the sentiments of those who oppose it. My only information and knowledge of the precise events is limited to the extent popularly reported across the media waves.
As has been reported, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS, as part of re-mapping justice series (on human rights in Pakistan), organized an event, on Thursday, 9th of April, 2015, which featured numerous guest speakers, and attempted to present their varied opinions in regards to the ongoing struggles in Baluchistan. Notably, one of the scheduled guest speakers, Mama Qadeer Baluch, is the controversial founder of Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), a group working for information on people who have “disappeared” during the long-running conflict between the government and Baloch separatist movements.
Ever since the death of his son, Jalil, in the custody of secret agencies, in 2009, Mama Qadeer has been a vocal advocate of requiring the law enforcement agencies to produce missing persons before the courts of law, and in particular to enforce the mandate of Article 10 of the Constitution, which provides for safeguards as to arrest and detention. As can be expected, in Mama Qadeer’s efforts to further the cause of VBMP, he has found himself in conflict with law enforcement agencies (in particular, the intelligentsia) at numerous occasions, over the past several years. During this time, reportedly, Mama Qadeer has been placed on the Exit Control List, he has been threatened to abandon his rhetoric, and has been cautioned against continuing his cause against State policies in Baluchistan (for the sake of the “integrity of Pakistan”).
The planned attendance of Mama Qadeer at the ‘Un-Silencing Baluchistan’ event, at LUMS, was expected to draw attendance from a large section of the student body, as well as from local area residents. This idea of ‘polluting’ the prevalent (State) narrative on Baluchistan with belligerent voices of dissent, allegedly, irked the sensitivities of Khaki power bearers. Eye-witness accounts claim that officials from the ISI visited members within the LUMS administration to ensure that the event was cancelled, immediately. As accepted by the official statement, circulated by LUMS administration, the “government” stepped in and “order[ed]” that the said event could not be held, prompting numerous students and faculty members to protest this decision.
Merits of the State’s narrative on missing persons in Baluchistan and Mama Qadeer’s opposing campaign aside, there are two issues that emanate from the instant controversy: (1) the legality of conducting constitutionally ‘impermissible’ speech (per Article 19), under the garb of educational discourse, and (2) the constitutionality of government-sanctioned viewpoint censorship in educational institutions.
Hard as it might be for the leftist liberals to accept, the constitutional right to speech (in virtually all constitutional paradigms) is not unlimited. And nor should it be. While more speech is always better than less (as famously claimed by Justice Holmes), and while dissent is frequently the strongest testament of democracy, there is still tremendous merit in ensuring that some speech is not provided with a microphone in our mainstream education. And that the “State” has a compelling interest in abridging or prohibiting such speech. Perhaps the most glaring example, in this regard, would be the State’s interest in banning TTP spokesmen, or that of any other banned terrorist organization, from conducting seminars in our schools (and madrassas), under the garb of freedom of speech and exchange of ideas. Now, it is unlikely that Mama Qadeer and his friends fall within such a prohibition of compelling State interest (especially if they do not advocate violence in the society). Nonetheless, rhetoric of the extreme left, which argues for unlimited and uncensored speech, is fallacious in logic as well as law.
The more important point, however, is the unacceptability of viewpoint censorship by the State, in our educational institutions. “Viewpoint censorship”, I say, because it is not the topic of Balochistan, in general, that the State wanted to censor; only one “viewpoint” of it. The establishment (whatever that might be) would have no trouble if officials from the law-enforcement agencies were invited to speak on the topic. It is just the counter-narrative, which paints the State of Pakistan in a particular (dark) light, even while it is not inciting violence, that is forbidden. And this, in line with the established principles of domestic and international jurisprudence, is impermissible State interference of ‘speech’, under our Constitutional regime. Not only does it violate the due process of law (as enshrined in Articles 4, 5, 8, and 10-A of the Constitution), but also unreasonably abridges the Freedom of Speech (Article 19), and is discriminatory in nature (Article 25).
This is not the first time that the State has stepped in to censor what is being taught or argued in our educational institutions. In 2013, the Provincial Government of Punjab “banned” the teaching of Comparative Religions and sections of Biology in a private school in Lahore. In 2011, under pressure from members of the IJT, two government universities were asked to remove teachers who were “too liberal” in their teaching methodologies and approach. We have, in the past, banned literature books (of Saadat Hassan Minto, for example) from being taught in our educational institutions. We have mandated the compulsory “Deeniyat” subject to be changed to “Islamiyaat”. We have written our Pakistan Studies books, as sanctioned by the State through respective textbook boards, to portray a tainted narration of the past. And this list goes on, and on, and on…
All educational institutions, and in particular colleges and universities, are the very cathedrals that must push the frontiers of thought and ideology, not restrict them. These hallowed halls must, every day, endeavor to question the status quo, think of the idea that no one has yet considered, break our shackles of intellectual inertia, probe the fundamentals of our faith, and rediscover the core of our collective ideology. All with a fierce resolve to unlock that higher fraction of human potential. And, in the process, vindicate our Creator’s faith in the boundless abilities of this lowly Ashraf-ul-Makhlooqaat.
It is time that LUMS, and the State of Pakistan, reconsider their stance on banning Mama Qadeer’s views. It is time that we all start embracing a more generous idea of free speech.