Recently, the police recovered 45 people, most of them children, from a madrassah in Karachi, where they were kept in chains and being tortured. The television channels repeatedly flashed the innocent faces of the children and their chained hands and feet, describing their ordeal of being beaten, whipped, and starved.

The chains to restrain their movement and the food deprivation to starve their bodies - visible and tangible proof of cruelty - immediately attracted outrage and sympathy from everyone. But does anyone ever notice the chains around the minds and starvation of the intellect - the invisible, untouchable and intangible cause of deprivation - that is so prevalent in the whole society? The barbarity of the prisoners and the plight of the imprisoned, which in this case was so obvious, are abstruse and difficult to grasp when the tools of cruelty are invisible, even though they are far more durable and the effects much more sinister.

What are these invisible chains and what causes the starvation of the mind? These are the chains of tradition, custom and culture. Are these chains universally and unequivocally detrimental? The answer is, “yes”, because they will not let the mind grow, the soul free, and the imagination soar; they will suppress creative thinking, smother talent and suffocate the innovative abilities. Starvation of the mind is caused by the restriction to challenge the dogmas, the accepted truths and the established order and hierarchy. The expression, “food for thought” means the idea that makes people think. And what makes people think is the power of inquiry, interrogation and investigation without any barriers or obstacles. In other words, customs and traditions are death messages for innovation, imagination, and ingenuity.

Who puts these chains around the minds? Who starves the intellect? There are several sources: Parents, family, school, media and peers - most of the time, imposed with love, making it very difficult to resist; their targets, mostly young, innocent children, are very impressionable and completely defenceless. The society, at large, also sends subtle and not so subtle messages to the young and the old: “Don’t dare to challenge, question, or threaten the old order because if you do, you will be isolated, demonised, assaulted, insulted, and delegitimised.” And thus, there is indoctrination of whole society.

The consequences are deadly.

First, people learn to suspend their own judgment and questioning abilities, accepting unreservedly the prevalent teachings and propaganda; easily convinced that wrong is right. Thus honour killing, marrying women to the Holy Quran, and exchanging them as property in disputes becomes honourable; denying education to young girls becomes routine; throwing acid on women’s faces and burying them alive becomes acceptable; and female circumcision becomes desirable, even to the victims. People start approving or at least tolerating the behaviour that is degrading to others, like treating servants as slaves, harassing girls in public places, and verbally and physically abusing the poor. Corruption, bribery and cheating become part of the system. People learn to submit, unquestioningly, to authority. Human beings are reduced to herd of animals, following whoever claims to be the authority on religion, knowledge and wisdom.

Second, children - growing up in this environment - become adults whose minds are securely and permanently enslaved and, sadly, most of the times, they don’t even know it. Thus, there is no ambition to learn more than what is taught and no curiosity to seek the whole truth. In fact, there develops a reluctance and even aversion to question. This results in fossilisation of ideas and ossification of thought process. People continue to live physically, but are dead intellectually, leading to spiritual and moral decay because spirit is alive only when mind is alive and morals come from intellect and not by reading, mindlessly, the pages of the scriptures. The hallmark of a living person or a nation is not its ability to eat and breathe, because even animals can do that, but its ability to think, examine, ponder, wonder and seek the truth under the most unfavourable circumstances. The sign of living human beings is a quest for knowledge, but how can there be a quest for knowledge when people think that what they know is the ultimate and uncontestable truth?

Third, when people are brainwashed with traditions and customs, learning becomes a mindless activity. Just like the body needs physical exercise to be strong, muscular and robust, mind needs mental challenges to solve problems, and to critically examine every piece of information in order to become energetic and vigorous. When people never have to think for themselves and are not allowed or encouraged to ask questions, and they never go through the mental rigours to analytically scrutinise their own convictions, ideas and opinions, thus they are unable to defend them when faced with criticism. They are given the knowledge, the truth, the faith, the facts, and the ideas on a silver platter and thus their minds are captured, imprisoned, branded, and encoded. So, as a result they become unwilling and unprepared to listen to dissenting opinions, fostering intolerance. Every challenge to their faith is perceived as a threat and thus, instead of rationally arguing and thinking, they become defensive and combative, blaming others for assaulting their values and faith.

Fourth, even those who claim to be free are not free. In Pakistan’s context, it is media and even judiciary. The print media is afraid to print any critique of the prevailing opinions; the digital media shies away from presenting contrary point of view and the judges have to flee the country if they have the courage to do the right thing and stand up for the truth. Everyone with an independent mind is forced to shut up.

Fifth, the most alarming aspect of this whole scenario is that this is a self-perpetuating cycle; generation after generation is chained and starved, till someone comes along who is willing to stake his or her life for the sake of truth and one’s right to think freely, question freely and believe freely; to shakes the status quo, the established order, the hierarchy; to abolish the monopoly of a few on the knowledge and learning; to break the control of the society on the minds and spirits. The worse kind of tyranny is the tyranny of society against the minds of individuals.

The final conclusion is that if we want to thrive, not just survive, want to live like human beings, not just like animals, want to progress, not retrogress, want to move to the future not to the past, and want to leave a legacy of free thought for our future generations, because this will be the best legacy, we have to remove all shackles, visible and invisible, and provide food not just for the body, but also for the mind. The question is: Do we have the courage to do that?

The writer is a freelance columnist.