The Modi’s government’s increasingly authoritarian tenor should not come as a surprise to anyone. As demonstrated by the Indian state’s heavy-handed response to student protests at JNU, the BJP and its leaders clearly have little respect for freedom of expression, peaceful demonstrations, and democratic debate. It was inevitable that a right-wing nationalist party like the BJP would ultimately do its best to ride roughshod over civil liberties in India, using the idiom of national security and pride to stifle dissent and appeal to the more chauvinistic elements of its electorate. Like other notionally ‘democratic’ leaders, whose ranks include figures like Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Putin, Modi has repeatedly sought to legitimize his position by cementing control over the state apparatus, weakening systems of accountability and opposition, and constantly feeding the populace a diet of top-down capitalist ‘development’ mixed with populist appeals to nationalism and communal sentiment that continuously emphasize how ‘strong’ leadership is exemplified by a willingness to disregard basic human rights and freedoms. As always, it is the marginalized, deprived, and dispossessed who suffer the fallout from this process; PhD student Rohith Vemula’s suicide last month was emblematic of the continued discrimination faced by dalits in India, as well as other communities including Muslims, Christians, and Adivasis. The easiest scapegoats and, indeed, targets are those that are least able to fight back.
When Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested for speaking his mind at JNU two weeks ago, he and the students and activists who rose up to support him were accused of sedition, treason, and ‘anti-national’ activities. This should be familiar territory for observers in Pakistan, where these labels have long been deployed to feather and tar any and all who challenge the ideological agenda of the state. Indeed, the readiness with which governments in India and Pakistan have used this line of attack against their opponents (the Modi government is hardly the first Indian one to do so) could arguably be attributed to a shared legacy of colonial governance through institutions designed to be exclusionary and authoritarian. Where India and Pakistan diverge is in the popular response to such measures; while India at least seems to have a thriving public debate and relatively well-organized and politicized groups willing to contest the power of the state, systematic campaigns to neuter progressive politics in Pakistan, particularly of the type associated with students and the working classes, has allowed for the hegemonic project of the state to unfold largely unimpeded.
As has been noted before in this column, politics in Pakistan, for all its apparent chaos and crises, is actually quite banal. While the question of where power truly lies, at least in terms of civil-military relations, is an interesting and important one not least of all because of its bearing on the question of relations with India and national identity, the simple fact is that mainstream politicians and parties in Pakistan remain characterized by a tremendous degree of ideological similarity and a common mooring in the milieu of the country’s traditional socioeconomic elite. As such, the constant confrontation between leaders and parties amounts to little more than superficial dross covering little of substance, with the actors involved simply arguing over how to divide the spoils of power. When it comes to some of the questions that matter – the exploitation and inequality inherent to capitalism, the role of religion in the public sphere and as a pillar of the ‘ideology of Pakistan’, and the grievances of Pakistan’s ethnic minorities – little is actually said to challenge the ideological consensus over which the military establishment and civilian political elite preside.
However, it is here that we encounter a paradox: if the state in Pakistan possesses the means and the opportunities to push its ideological agenda forward, why does it react so heavy-handedly to even the smallest indications of dissent? Why it is that a young man flying an Indian flag to demonstrate his love for the cricketer Virat Kohli is arrested with a speed that belies popular conceptions of the state as being hopelessly inefficient? Why would a university seminar on Balochistan that would have, in all probability, been sparsely attended merit the intervention of shadowy intelligence agencies demanding its cancellation? Why are professors speaking at conferences on regional languages being removed from their posts for allegedly questioning the ‘ideology of Pakistan’? Why is it that activists like Baba Jan in GB end up facing anti-terrorism courts for protesting against the state, and trade unionists meet the same fate for demanding answers about the privatization of national assets? What all these incidents and individuals have in common is the arguably disproportionate attention they received from a state that should not have been threatened by them in any meaningful way. The situation is even more puzzling when considering how those who openly preach hate and engage in violence appear to be able to do so with impunity.
The paradox is not difficult to resolve. The state’s lack of tolerance for any kind of dissent stems from the underlying fragility of the ideological narrative it has historically put forward. Force and coercion may have limited the ability of progressive groups to mount a serious challenge to the state, but that does not mean that the official, mainstream emphasis on a particularly parochial religious nationalism, as well as an unquestioning embrace of capitalist ‘development’, represents the only viable way to think about Pakistan and its future. Every day, the contradictions at the heart of the status quo, and the limits to the legitimation acquired by the state through the propagation of its ideological dogma, are exposed by the lived experiences of the underprivileged and oppressed in this country. The state sheds its democratic façade when challenged, no matter how small the scale, because to do otherwise would be to potentially open the floodgates of critique and resistance.
If correct, this explanation also helps to understand the tolerance for religious extremism as well as the indulgence of recalcitrant traders and brick-kiln owners in open violation of the law; in both cases, the groups involved say nothing that actively threatens the state. Indeed, every religious ‘scholar’ who declares minorities to be infidels, or decries legislation seeking to protect women from domestic violence, is ultimately reinforcing the broader religious narrative the state has propagated for almost seven decades. Similarly, unlike the striking workers who are met with bullets and batons, tax evaders can count on the continued support of their friends and allies in parliament.
There is one alternative explanation; religious extremists and powerful economic interests can act the way they do because the state simply lacks the capacity to move against them even when it desires to do so. If anything, this explanation is perhaps more depressing than the previous one.