Yes, you guessed that right. We are talking about Pakistan. Ours is a country where almost everyone at the opposing sides of so many social, ethnic, religious and political divides calls each other a traitor. And all it takes to call someone a traitor is just a matter of difference of opinion. Intolerance is the very fibre of our culture. For a former political activist like me, someone who takes a keen interest in various political discourses in the country, this is quite unfortunate.
I believe myself to be an idealist, someone who believes in ideal strong institutions with perfect harmony and jurisdiction. I am against the personality politics culture in Pakistan where we carve out a god-like cult of our favourite leader and then cultivate zero tolerance for any word of criticism.
I used the adjective “former” because I am no longer actively associated with any political party since the national elections of 2013. However, it was not always like this. I have remained an active supporter of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for 16 years till the 2013 elections. I did not support Imran Khan and his party because I thought he was a heart-throb, neither his exercise and diet routines fascinated me nor because I believed he was a revolutionary saviour we have been waiting for, unlike my fellow Insafians (as PTI supporters are called) who believed he was a reincarnation of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
One of the many reasons I stopped supporting PTI was the kind of intolerance which Imran Khan and other PTI leaders were instilling in their followers. But to say that this is only limited to PTI is completely false, in fact, a gross accusation against PTI. A few days ago I saw a federal minister using state’s resources and platform to call Imran Khan a foreign agent and a traitor live on television. There was only one word that came to my mind then, “pathetic”.
Across the political spectrum in Pakistan, whoever you will dare to differ with will call you a liar, abuse you, and call you names. What is worst is the fact that you will be called a tout, someone’s paid agent, or a traitor. You will face the kind of mudslinging which any decent and civilized country would categorize as hate speech. However, this is Pakistan; the land of the “free”, the unrestrained, and the “traitors”.
The problem with modern western democracy, as I wrote somewhere earlier before, is that it is essentially divisive. It divides us into nationalities, sub-nationalities, political parties, trade and labor unions, media and pressure groups, as well as ethnic, linguistic and sectarian groups and organizations. We further endanger this complex and divided society by our intolerant attitudes and the kind of language which tantamount to hate speech.
In separate parts of the country, different personalities and families are revered like saints and martyrs, but for others they are the symbols of our country’s many failures and the history of its bigotry and corruption. Then there is the Pakistan Army which remains the most loved but feared institution in the country. There are some who believe that four of its former chiefs should be tried for treason. Then there are those in other walks of life who are just called traitors because their fathers were deemed as traitors. The curious case of Hamid Mir of Jang & GEO group is one such case in point who has recently been labeled as a traitor by Insafians because of his father, Waris Mir.
We Pakistanis need to understand, first of all, that no person, party or institution can be singularly blamed for the failures of our statehood. It is a collective failure; we all must share the responsibility. We must not see individual regimes in isolation. Whatever is wrong today is not just because of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), unlike what Imran Khan would like us to believe. But yes, they are an integral part of that continued failure, and unless they radically change they must be rated likewise. But there are many reasonable ways of stating that difference of opinion.
If a son should be persecuted, and prosecuted, for the presumed crimes of his father or vice versa, then all sons of controversial fathers should be queued in that line and not just Hamid Mir. Such a queue should at least include PTI’s very own Asad Umar to make the justice of the Insaf party transparent and equal. But, there are always some who are more equal than others. The list should also include Ijaz ul Haq and Gohar Ayub the old-time favourites of PML-N, and the entire progeny of the Bhutto, Bugti and Bacha Khan families, for all of them have been deemed as traitors at various points of our history.
Pakistan Army is an admirable institution, and let it be fairly said that no institution in Pakistan is free of the burden of our national failures. And there will always be voices against military involvement in civilian affairs. However, these voices of dissent should not be taken as a sign of treason unless they are maliciously aimed at functionally damaging the vital institution of national security. But there lies a problem, how do we gauge something as abstract and implicit as intention?
If the negative feedback is limited to criticism on policies, especially of military dictators, then these should be taken only as a feedback. The military should receive such feedback courageously and revisit its former policies to strengthen itself as an institution. If the sensibilities of military junta are hurt because the constitution calls for a treason trial of a military dictator, then the problem lies with the former general who overthrew an elected government or the constitution itself, and not with someone who calls for a treason trial. He is just asking for implementation of the constitution. If you do not agree with the law or dislike such demands for a trial, stop overthrowing the governments or just change the law. However, I agree there are possibilities that people who call for such a trial may have a malicious intent.
But then again, how do we gauge intention objectively so as to ensure equity for all, and that no one is victimized?
I often tell my small circle of friends that any law is just a piece of paper or a book on a shelf. It does not inherently hold the power to enforce itself, that power comes from the will of the people. Unfortunately, it is our people who like everything but playing by the book.
I wonder how we can change our political culture. Why do we not work to develop harmony and tolerance within the society? That is the real change we need in this country – not some political rhetoric – but some lessons in civility, mutual respect, tolerance and reason. Where are all the civil society organizations, intellectuals and advocacy groups? Why are they not doing what needs to be done?
However, I do have one suggestion. I propose that we change our hate speech laws, and make calling someone a traitor a criminal offence. No one should be allowed to call someone an agent, a paid tout or a traitor except a higher court of law under a free, fair and independent judiciary. If anyone believes someone to be an agent or a traitor, they should substantiate their claim through credible evidence in front of the court of law instead of harassing and slandering the accused publicly. Judging people should only be the responsibility of the judiciary.
I believe such a law would be welcomed than having 200 million judges with each having the power and authority to demonize, victimize and execute others at will just because we have a different opinion. The state needs to get its act together like right now!