‘Speak,’ said Faiz, ‘for your lips are free.’

Censorship takes innumerable forms – it may be naked or subtle, express or implied, brutal or innocuous, exposed or camouflaged. Yet, no matter the shape, no matter the attire, it is still cancerous for society. It devours liberty, it restrains free speech, and in so doing, it stifles all criticism of power. The recent disappearance of five men, each of them vocal and unrelenting in their criticism of the state apparatus is the most brazen form of censorship – and the deadliest.

Its expedience lies in its lethal ability to cripple our morale, to fetter our tongues and to silence all future dissent. The message it sends is categorical and unambiguous: speak, but at your peril. These men had spoken – they had spoken against illegal detentions and forced abductions, against religious intolerance and rising sectarianism, against state patronage of theocracy and the hegemonic might of the military establishment. In short, they had spoken against the status quo, and evidently, they did do so at their peril.

The disappearance of these activists is nothing novel. It is a strategy that has been employed, historically, by all manner of regimes, and of late, it has unfortunately become the typical modus operandi of those seeking to eradicate all freedom of expression from our society – a Machiavellian standard of protocol – to be unleashed at the slightest hint of dissension.

Naturally, the state has swiftly absolved itself of all involvement, offering nothing but a bare denial of any wrongdoing on its part. Yet, there is an unsettling feeling amongst us, a feeling that something is amiss. After all, the disappearance of these activists, especially in such quick succession, is evidence of premeditation. These men were not terrorists or separatists; they were poets, editors and bloggers, known only in select circles. Their co-ordinated abductions, far from being isolated incidents, indicate a calculated and intelligent attack on a very particular segment of society.

The question begs itself: if the state is the perpetrator behind these disappearances, why is the state, more and more increasingly, resorting to such violence? And why is the application of this violence so erratic and unpredictable?

The reason, in my opinion, is simple: our state suffers from severe cognitive dissonance, in that it is torn between the pursuit of two conflicting ideals. On one hand, it espouses the constitutional principles of every liberal democracy – the right to free speech, thought and expression, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly – all the lofty ambitions of the humanist political paradigm. On the other hand, it feels the pressing urge to preserve, at all costs, its more traditional features – the socially constructed notion of a pan-Islamic identity, the idea of religious affiliation as the common denominator behind national cohesion and the historical dominance of the establishment.

Each time it is confronted with criticism, the state automatically finds itself in the midst of a dilemma, either to let the offence slide or to gag and silence the offender. Unfortunately, it is increasingly resolving in favour of the latter, gradually developing a gluttonous appetite for censorship. What the ‘deep state’ fails to realise is that this reactionary muscle flexing is a quick fix, a temporary solution to an enduring and lasting problem, one that is fated to result in retaliation.

Our freedom of speech is an inalienable right. Its legitimacy draws from its unparalleled importance, for against a state that holds a monopoly over violence; it remains the most valuable commodity of our citizenship, our most effective weapon. It allows us to openly criticise public authorities, to question our leaders and to hold the powerful to account. It is a catalyst for progression and a prerequisite for liberty. It is the last refuge of the marginalised, and without it, the social contract offered by the state is rendered bare of any security.

That is not to say that this right is absolute. Like all privileges, it too, has limitations. The right to free speech may be justifiably curtailed if it is likely to result in harm to a person or a class of persons. However, this restriction must be imposed with a great degree of caution, for its ambiguity inherently creates space for its misuse. The state cannot be allowed to arbitrarily draw the boundaries of our freedoms. It cannot be free to single-handedly dictate the terms and conditions of our fundamental rights.

Pakistan is a multi-cultural society, a mixture of a hundred languages, religions and ethnicities and host to innumerable ideologies. It requires no great foresight to understand that our society is bound to exhibit a diversity of opinions. Some of these may be distasteful, perhaps even indigestible but they must be tolerated, by state and society alike.

As George Orwell fittingly puts it, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.