Big Brother Returns?

Posted on March 5, 2016

Aridiculously big tragedy just got averted. We should thank all branches of government, all pillars of state that finally came together and for once, behaved the way they are supposed to. I will not say there were no opportunistic attempts to capitalise on the environment of uncertainty. I will not claim that all of us have displayed enough emotional intelligence to master our impulses either. But Mumtaz Qadri’s death and funeral proved, for once, that when we want to act like a nation, we do.

It was for the first time I saw regulators like PEMRA and PTA not letting miscreants or agent provocateurs paralyse the society with fear, if not hatred. I saw a media that for once, mostly chose to respect the state’s directives in handling the developing story with caution. The police and other law-enforcement agencies also did not go looking for confrontation. And the political government also went around doing business as if nothing unusual was happening.

And that is all very well. But there were others who accused the state of censorship in the time of democracy. That is an interesting debate and something that I will dwell upon in a bit. But there were others, especially in the media, who hate this government so much that despite their lack of personal conviction, they did all they could to create an environment of paranoia and insecurity. Fortunately, their attempts did not succeed. And finally, there were friends to whom Qadri’s funeral was a proof that the Pakistani society was still deeply radicalised. So many people paying homage to a murderer would essentially mean that the country was broken beyond repair, or so they argued. While too much emphasis on blind faith is never a good idea, the radicalisation debate is deeply flawed because it overlooks our own collective failure and collapse of imagination.

If truth be told, Qadri became so big because we failed to come up with the appropriate narrative immediately after Salman Taseer’s assassination. When I look at the facts, it wasn’t a difficult task at all. But the then PPP’s government, to which Taseer only marginally belonged to, went into a shocked and frightened silence immediately after the incident. I have mentioned in one of my previous pieces how difficult it was for me to find a liberal/moderate voice for my show on that tragic day. Only thing you needed to show was that Taseer was not guilty of blasphemy which was so obvious. But no one did that and then the sentiment that grew kept simmering for five long years. Absence of a coherent and intelligent narrative does this much damage. But now that the entire episode is behind us, let us hope that instead of judging the funeral participants too harshly the moderates find their voice and overcome the narrative gap on rest of the crucial issues. Complaints of radicalisation beyond control only build a case for a dictatorial approach to governance that is not conducive to our changing reality.

Now let us come back to the question of censorship, democracy and the powers of the big brother. Let us be honest. In the post 9/11 world aided by the technological advances, the states have the reason and the means to watch the actions of their citizens very closely. There is no point in staying in denial about it. Consequently, the big brother will watch, the big sister will watch. So will their spouses and their kids. But it doesn’t mean an end of democracy.

Think of the day of the funeral. The body of a man from Rawalpindi was brought there for his last rites. So many came to attend because nobody had effectively convinced them that what he had done was wrong. In an emotionally charged environment, if the media were to report every second and yet owing to some human failure or by design, spread some vicious rumour, the entire episode could wreak havoc. And this is known to happen in the past. So the best bet was to request the media to stay away from such a volatile situation.

But what worries me is that we are a democracy in training and we may not end up learning the wrong lessons. Media was kept away because it has capacity issues and maturity needed. That should be the area of focus now and not curtailing media’s freedom as a routine practice. That can be achieved when media outlets have standard procedures to handle such issues. Also, the state needs to invest a little in the emotional education of its citizenry so that it doesn’t have to worry about spontaneous outbursts.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 5th, 2016.