Is coercive consensus enough?

BY B A B A R S A T T A R | 5/4/2015

WHILE pygmies running this country traffic half-baked inane ideas of saviour-hood, one can feel sand slipping through the fingers. Some events slap you out of the otherwise benevolent complacency that helps you sleep better in troubled times. The assassination of Sabeen Mahmud was one such event. Heartbreaking for all who knew Sabeen personally, this is the latest reminder of how abusive the relationship is between the state and citizens.

The Pakistani state urgently needs to undergo a behavioral change and re-imagine its relationship with its citizens as one of care and compassion. That it is loath to do. A false narrative has been sold to Punjab-dominated Pakistan that a strongman with a big hammer and the will to use it indiscriminately can transform this blighted land into heaven. The approach to statecraft that cultivated violent (political and religious) non-state entities as assets and state institutions as a means of coercion as opposed to service delivery is still in play.

Building on arguments by friend Mosharraf Zaidi in his excellent `Paradox of plausible accusability` last week, the similarity in mindset and methods employed by the state and the violent non-state entities it is fighting (in Fata, Balochistan and Karachi) is terrifying: there are no red lines or rules; there is heavy reliance on violence and propaganda; there is zero tolerance for dissenters and critics (and now their supporters); and death of innocent citizens seems acceptable collateral damage.

While a functional state must retain its monopoly over violence, the use of violence by the state must always be subject to rules. Just because non-state entities don`t abide by rules doesn`t entitle the state to follow suit. The need for legitimacy and proportionality in the use of violence by the state can never be over-emphasised in relation to its own citizens. If the use of force by the state isn`t according to rules, the distinction between state and non-state violence disappears. Then it is simply a fight between two mafias.

The dilemma of the vocal citizen opposed to violence of all sorts is that he or she doesn`t know who to fear more: the state or non-state actors. It is open hunting season in Pakistan for this endangered species. If you`re against religiously inspired savagery, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan or one of its cousins can kill you. If you`re against sectarian violence, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi or one of its cousins can kill you.

If you contest the state`s version of `patriotism`, chances are you are also opposed to the TTPs, LJs, obscurantism and state oppression. In such case anyone can kill you: state assets reaffirming the coercive notion of patriotism and the need for freethinking citizens to acquiesce; terror outfits and obscurantists settling scores with critics; foreign shadowy agencies settling scores with our state agencies.

But here is why holding the state responsible is justified. It is the state`s obligation to uphold citizens` right to life and liberty and bring to justice terrorists and criminals, whether indigenous or foreign-funded. The obligation doesn`t end by merely pointing out that enemies are fishing in troubled waters.

Post 9/11, Americans predominantly gave their state much leeway in relation to curtailing civil liberties (as did Pakistanis with the 21st Amendment and Fair Trial Act etc). But even immediately after 9/11, Noam Chomsky continued to speak at MIT and write critically about America`s quest for global dominance. His talks weren`t cancelled. And he neither suffered death for his ideas nor bodily harm.

Why do critical voices terrify our mighty state? In end-2014, the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA`s treatment of foreign terror suspects immediately after 9/11 (popularly called the `torture report`) was released to the public. While opinion was divided on the timing of its release, there was broad agreement that public disclosure is essential for accountability and course correction, and will strengthen US democracy and the rule of law. Last week, President Obama publicly apologised for the death of US citizen Warren Weinstein mistakenly killed in a drone attack in Pakistan`s border area.

Is this conceivable in Pakistan? There is a contraction of civil liberties during wartime. But how will the required subsequent expansion take place if you literally kill all dissenting voices? The state is a suspect in Sabeen`s murder because Pakistan has a well-entrenched tradition of shooting the messenger. If Mama Qadeer`s talk at LUMS had not been stopped and it wasn`t common knowledge that the ISI is averse to giving him airtime, would people still wonder about the state`s role in Sabeen`s death? Is there any contradiction in opposing the state`s kill-and-dump policy while also opposing violent Baloch separatists killing Punjabis and other settiers in Balochistan? Or in supporting Zarb-i-Azb against the savage TTP while also supporting due process of law for terrorists captured alive in military operations? Or in supporting a law-enforcement operation against militants, extortionists and criminals in Karachi while opposing any scheme to dismantle MQM as a political party? The hammer is a useful tool. But our problems are more complex than nails. The army is certainly the most powerful, disciplined and effective institution in Pakistan today. But is that enough for a stable and prosperous Pakistan? The army can use its hard and soft power to marshal temporary coercive consensus on certain issues (eg military courts) or slap a veto in relation to others (remember Kerry-Lugar?). But those are the limits of its power.

What it can`t do single-handedly is foster a genuine conformist consensus among citizens. That limit is manifest in all military operations. What is our Balochistan policy beyond killing as many separatists as possible? Where is our plan to mainstream Fata once the fighting is over? Will leaked JIT reports, Saulat Mirzas and halfwit SSPs be sufficient to erode the genuine public support the MQM enjoys amongst Karachi`s Mohajir community? Castigating as traitors those suspicious of the state`s role in attacks on Sabeen Mahmud (or Saleem Shahzad or Hamid Mir) or in relation to missing persons, doesn`t help. If the citizen isn`t sure whether the state is the protector or the perpetrator, who is to blame, the citizen or the state? •
The writer is a lawyer. Twitter: @babar_sattar

Published in Dawn