In a small marble pavilion at the Karachi Zoo, Mumtaz Begum would recline on a mosaic dais, all decked out with dusky rouged cheeks, crimson lips, and a glittery headscarf adorning her furry body and bushy tail, flirting and telling the fortunes of people who threw their questions and money at her. The half-woman, half-fox was a childhood thrill. My mother took us to the zoo once a year, where I’d get a minute or two to stare at the creature before the next person in line nudged me away or my sister yanked me toward the elephant ride.
Now, I look back on the hybrid creature of Mumtaz Begum with a retrospective curiosity. Not as much for her, who I now know was a male actor posing as a woman whose head popped out of an underground chamber, a headscarf concealing where he joined the body of a taxidermied fox. I’m now perplexed more by the long line of grown-ups we had to queue behind to get to Mumtaz Begum. There was a separate ticket price to converse with her, and spectators would ask her questions about where she came from and what she ate, whether to accept marriage proposals or undertake travel that month. Knowing Mumtaz Begum was an optical illusion, people still considered her a marvel and asked for her help in solving their problems.
But maybe cognitive dissonance doesn’t always need to be resolved.
Maybe we in Pakistan engage with democracy on similar terms, as something both real and performed, something that requires a suspension of disbelief.
Maybe that’s the way to deal with hybridity.
Global policy analysts declare that Pakistan is no longer a failing state, a lens in vogue in the past; now, we’ve been upped to a “hybrid regime.” The framework is used to refer to incomplete democratic transitions where authoritarian features persist, leaving room for both political repression and regular elections. Procedurally, Pakistan is a democracy. But for all the talk of its context-specific organic problems, the country is trapped inside the generic Wikipedia entry on democratic backsliding: critics maligned as unpatriotic; defenders of democratic institutions seen as representatives of a tired, insulated elite; free and fair elections obstructed through disqualification of opposition leaders; rule of law corroded through threatened judicial autonomy—all in slow, gradual, seemingly disconnected steps.
It has been 12 years since Pakistan’s last military regime and the ouster of President General Pervaiz Musharraf. Subsequent elections were held during the War on Terror, which ensured the military’s continued centrality in the polity, even though elected governments pushed back against its political encroachments on a few fronts. Since then, the 2018 elections were the first to be held without the spectre of terrorist attacks and ongoing war. This could have been a moment of significant democratic consolidation and receding relevance of the army’s positioning in the civilian sphere. Instead, an elected government was ushered in by the army’s patronage, which according to most observers, works as its extension.
What then, to make of this composite creature? Does the army’s presence undermine the democratically-elected government? Does the democratically-elected government absolve the army’s role?
The saying goes that if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. But what if the duck also is scaly to touch, smells like camphor, and tastes like bitter gourd? What is it, then?
The decade-and-a-half of the War on Terror took a staggering toll on Pakistan. Some 70,000 people died, including over seven thousand soldiers and security officials who were targeted and killed. Public culture and institutional capacities were shattered with over six thousand bomb blasts. Trust among citizens and confidence in the state was torn apart through nearly six hundred suicide attacks. Millions were displaced and a generation scarred. Though the war hasn’t officially been declared over, militant networks no longer operate across swathes of the land, and terrorist attacks have declined drastically over the past decade.
Now comes the backwash, the teetering and reeling as the crashing destructive waves recede.
A state that feels aggrieved and battered by international politics and imperiled by regional borders, viewing citizens with doubt and jumping at shadows; a society with disintegrating trust in representative institutions, sick of violence and animated by fear; a public willing to accept surveillance and pro-security narratives; a growing group of activists opposed to the political power wielded by the armed forces; and a shaky, debt-ridden economy, prone to inflation and capital flight.
There is little national discussion about what the war did to the country beyond the loss of lives and the impact on the economy. We refer to the war as “those days,” partly because there was much ambiguity around the war even when it was being fought. Was it a war war or was it a civil war? Who were we fighting against? Was it our war or one being fought at the behest of the US and its allied forces? Was it compelled by events in the region or was it a culmination of our own failings? Was it even a war at all, or a contained conflict? Or was it an engineered spectacle? Was it simultaneously all of the above?
Uncertainty in itself is not a bad thing. Clarity in war is a reductive indulgence for those who can find moral perches off the battlefield; the sites of actual conflict are always gray zones.
But ambiguity about the recent past has spilled over into the immediate present. Today’s peace is also suspect. Is discord simmering? Can it be considered peace when it is engineered by clampdowns? Does peace mean compressing all that happened into the state’s victory sign? Or can it allow for questions about what happened during the war to open up? Answering for how wars were conducted remains the central challenge in transitional justice systems.
Today, the Pakistani state treats all calls for accountability of the security apparatus as a refutation of its sacrifices in the war—as a refutation of the country itself. Journalists have faced the brunt of it. For example, Dawn newspaper, known for opposing the military’s presence in politics, saw its journalist Cyril Almeida face a treason charge for reporting differences between the then-government and intelligence agencies over inaction against extremist groups. Social media trended hashtags like #BanDawnNews, its offices were besieged by mobs sloganeering in favor of the military, its distribution was blocked off in various places, and government advertisements—a mainstay of the newsprint industry—were stopped entirely.
Geo, the largest national news channel, was temporarily shut down, its cable distribution cut off. In other media houses, news staff point to a change in tactics: media owners are instructed to ensure good behavior of employees or dare face financial consequences. Many senior journalists have lost their jobs. Polarization of the media is evident as news channels considered to be allied to state institutions lead the charge against those who protest censorship.
State authorities have also tried to tame social media. The previous government passed a controversial law, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, despite opposition by activists, under which journalist Shahzeb Jillani was charged for “Defamatory remarks against the respected institutions of Pakistan.” The current government has passed internet regulations through which almost all critical online content could be called illegal or anti-state.
The state’s thin skin is astonishing. Spoofs are also now illegal as per law. A parody website, “Khabaristan Times,” was blocked by authorities and consequently ceased to exist. No official notification was sent to the publishers. A satirical novel that poked fun at the military dictatorship in the 1980s, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammad Hanif, one of Pakistan’s most acclaimed novelists and journalists, was translated and published in Urdu last year. The publishing house was raided and all copies were confiscated by the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The book is no longer available in the country.
This isn’t sudden, either. In 2014, security agencies carried out a string of raids on bookshops and arrested booksellers in Balochistan, confiscating well-known books on Baloch culture and history that, they claimed, “directly incite people against the state and the army.” At Atta Shad Degree College in Turbat, paramilitary forces raided and confiscated works of Bertrand Russell, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and Che Guevera as “anti-state material.”
Some people say things are more oppressive now than ever before. Which is, of course, not true. This is nostalgia for the simplicity of the past. Previously, the bad guy was the beady-eyed general who got people whipped. Now, it’s a system that gaslights you. How do you gather to fight shadows? There’s an elected government in place that is vigilant on corruption; numerous private television channels castigate cabinet ministers; the judiciary keeps kicking out high-level officials from their jobs. So, many ask, what’s the problem?
The answer lies partly in the structural asymmetries in the civil-military power balance. And, partly in the changing interface between the military and citizens. Historically, within the area that now constitutes Pakistan, the army is not known for brutality. It has not inflicted the kind of savage violence associated elsewhere with military regimes, and hasn’t had to contend with mass uprisings against it. When it has been accused of human rights violations, the attribution is usually indirect, with a proxy group often involved. Resentment against the army stems more from its repeated subversion of and intrusion into the political process, and for its heavy-handed attempts at upholding what it believes is in the national interest.
The army’s perception that dissent threatens society, and its insistence on unvarying patriotism, has strengthened in the aftermath of the War on Terror. Thousands of soldiers were killed and military bases bombed. The terrorist attacks were carried out by the Taliban and its spinoffs or factions, primarily if not exclusively Pakistanis, many of whom the army tried negotiating with many times before their acts of public brutality compelled the army to attack back. The army saw people turn on them and become collective public enemies. Many of them were former army allies, products of the Afghan war of the ’80s and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in the ’90s.
The fluidity of “the other” against whom the war was fought has frayed nerves. What was initially a fight against Al-Qaeda became a war with Pakistani tribal extremist networks, who then coalesced into TTP (Tehrik-e-Taliban), but later splintered into various factions with autonomous targets, then onto local ISIS-affiliates, and now, what the army calls fifth-generation warfare: the battle of perceptions.
The experience of battling violent extremists has been extrapolated onto all Pakistani citizens. Thus, any challenge to state authorities is viewed with extreme suspicion and considered a gateway to attack the state itself. In response, dissenters are confronted with strong state counter-narratives, frequently deemed anti-state, foreign-funded, and against the national interest. In this way, the state is creating the very entity it fervidly wants to block: the unwanted citizen.
It’s a closed circuit. As the army’s attempts to manage citizens increases, so do people’s grievances with it. Instead of a distant savior, the army is becoming seen as an intrusive controller. It is either/or. You can’t self-hybridize and tack on a separate head to deal with political challenges. It reminds me of the Myrmecoleon, the ant-lion of medieval bestiaries, fated to stay unsated because the lion part will only eat meat and the ant part will only digest grain. Both parts suffer.
We asked for this. We demanded this.
For years, the state has pointed to external forces being the root of our problems: at various points, the Americans, the Soviets and their communism, and India. It isn’t all paranoia. An Indian spy, Kulbashan Yadav, was caught inside the country funding and training insurgent groups and he admitted his role on record. An undercover CIA operative, Raymond Davis, was caught spying when he ended up killing Pakistani citizens. Others have orchestrated fake campaigns to criticize the country; the EU Disinfo Lab identified one such network in Europe, called Srivastava.
But we insisted that all problems cannot be externalized, that the state must turn its binoculars inward and see how we are messing up our own self. We got our wish. The gaze shifted toward us—those of us demanding more freedoms.
Now, Pakistan’s army chief, General Bajwa, says a “hybrid war” has been imposed on the country to weaken it internally. The army spokesperson elaborated, explaining that perceptions were the battlefield of such asymmetric war, including enemies’ exploitation of divisions in society. Those who dare interrogate are players in this fifth-generation war, we are told.
Currently, the strongest challenge to the army’s impunity comes from a nascent non-violent youth uprising encompassing the Pashtun ethnic group called the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, from the northwest tribal regions—one of the main battlegrounds of the War on Terror. The PTM wants accountability for how the war was fought, and the state is reacting with its usual panic. The broadcast media cannot cover PTM rallies. Its leaders have been offloaded from flights, and venue grounds flooded with water before public events. The group’s main ideologue, Manzoor Pashteen, spent weeks in prison charged with sedition. Two PTM leaders who are members of parliament were jailed for terrorism. “What kind of freedom is this?” chant the crowds at their rallies.
Authorities have also stated the PTM receives funding from Afghanistan to spread unrest. Many people find the charge convincing. Given the history of movements for establishing a “Greater Afghanistan” comprising Pashtun ethnic areas straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan, PTM leaders’ ethnocentrism and support of Afghan leaders, combined with anti-army speeches, prompts fears that it may turn secessionist.
The PTM and the army are shaped by the same dynamic—collective trauma following a protracted conflict. Collective trauma is not just a singular shock, but an ongoing meaning-making process for perpetrators as well as victims. It transforms memory of events to erase past moral transgressions, highlighting sacrifices and minimizing culpability in wrongdoing, and congealing group identity. The army has yet to accept that it was complicit in letting the Taliban gather strength and that its delayed action cost many lives. Pashtuns have yet to reconcile the fact that some among them were responsible for large-scale atrocities and some among them benefitted from a war economy.
But there is no equivalence. One is a regular standing army with immense might, resources, and constitutional obligations. The other is an unarmed ethnic youth mobilization demanding rights while being provocative and occasionally obnoxious.
Though it may be the military’s goal, attempts at grafting the ideal citizen belong in the dystopian genre. Indeed, attempting to peg down the elusive concept is producing the opposite.
What, then, to do with the unwanted citizens?
They have been accused of sedition.
Over 20 students and political leaders were arrested and imprisoned for arranging public protests. Previously, the colonial-era law on sedition was used against sub-nationalist leaders challenging provisions of the constitution. This time, it was against activists demanding implementation of the constitution. After an outcry, the courts dismissed the charges.
They have been garrotted with red tape.
Non-governmental organizations working on human rights, democratization, and social justice have been summoned for explanations at multiple levels, ordered to redirect their work, had events cancelled, had hotels refuse to host their programs, and been accused of working against the country’s image. Many have had their registrations cancelled to “protect national interest.”
They have been intimidated into silence.
Bloggers who wrote critically about the army were picked up by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). Conservative clerics and television show hosts speculated they were picked up for blasphemy. The courts acquitted them after FIA admitted they found no evidence against them. All of them had to flee from the country because of blasphemy speculations. After receiving asylum, they have spoken out about being subjected to torture.
And what of the undesirable citizens who breach boundaries of romantic non-violent dissent and turn insurgent?
Some of them vanish. The first enforced disappearances were of young men affiliated with Baloch nationalist political parties critical of the state, many of whom advocated separatism. Many are still missing; a few have returned home; others have turned up as mutilated dead bodies found dumped on roadsides. The total number of the disappeared are contested. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances says the majority of the cases it has received are those accused of terrorism from the north-western tribal areas, and as of January 2020, it has resolved 67% of them.
Scavenger-like, I scoured through archives of despair to feed this piece I agreed to write on state violence. Did I manage a balance of analytical depth and sophisticated reflections with a literary tinge? Very few adjectives, restrained outrage, no stock character villains—instead, an exploration to psychologically map where fears stem from. Pat my head. Which now has a little less hair from all the times I’ve pulled at it in stress worrying about friends, some close, some distant, while standing with them through traumatic experiences. I’ve ignored the cringe at reducing them to succinct examples for illustrating this piece. Any single one of these incidents could have been the entire focus of this writeup, but then I’d have to really talk to them about it. Beyond the usual sardonic banter of “will me your books,” I don’t know how to have those conversations just yet. I needed detachment. Either that, or a different lexicon.
Balochistan had initially seemed like a good place to focus on. A huge resource-cursed province with incommunicable poverty; the site of insurgencies, secessionists, mass graves and death squads people accuse paramilitaries of enabling; a generation of students either radicalized into violence and disappeared, or centrist and despondent.
That didn’t work either. Instead, here’s a mess of musings, foraged facts, a crack at coherence. Maybe T. S. Eliot was right when he wrote “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Maybe it can be rendered legible only through the unreal, the fantastic.
So then, back to hybridity.
People in Quetta grew up hearing scary stories of the “mumh,” a demonic half-bear, half-woman who ate their goats, kidnapped children, and killed people. It preyed at night; in daytime, it turned to stone—you could even go see it in the graveyard on Baleli Road. Here, as elsewhere, myth and history enmesh.
The legend of the “mumh” emerged from a statue of a sphinx erected by British colonial rulers to honor soldiers of the Gloucestershire Regiment killed in the Anglo-Afghan wars—the regiment that had earlier been conferred the emblem of the Sphinx for fighting against Napoleon’s troops in the battle for Egypt. Locals had never encountered such a creature, and so a monument to the courage of soldiers morphed into the town’s terror.
This official memorial was destroyed by the public during riots, but because it’s Pakistan, there’s a flipside example, too: a public memorial destroyed by officials. At the Karachi Biennale last year, artist Adeela Suleman assembled symbolic headstones representing people killed by Rao Anwar, an “encounter specialist” police officer notorious for extrajudicial killings. He is known to operate as a hitman for both political parties and security agencies. The faux graveyard, titled Killing Fields of Karachi, was vandalized and sealed shut, according to the directorate of parks on orders of the military. Students and activists flocked to the site to protest through a “die-in,” corporeal bodies replacing gravestones.
Was it actually the military who ordered the destruction, or was it the pre-emptive panic of an official who wanted to avoid displeasure or ingratiate himself? This question holds for every case mentioned in this piece. Who does one blame? The army has issued no press advisories, has no announced censorship policies, and is not imprisoning journalists. It is media owners who carry out the actions. We are told the magistrate decided to charge activists with sedition. The FIA decided to abduct the bloggers. The interior ministry decided to clamp down on human rights advocacy groups. The police decided to arrest PTM leaders.
We have to learn the art of shadow-boxing.
It’s a truism that oppression breeds resistance, but what about when there’s no clear oppressor to resist? The other maxim is confusion breeds distrust. Guess which has more staying power?
Pakistan has now experienced two contiguous democratic transitions. As the possibility of a military coup lessens and the specter of war recedes from immediacy, democratic impulses toward dissent will surely strengthen. Many suggest this hybrid democracy is a valid proposition, where an elected government is in place and the military retains its power without being at the front helm, ensuring all actors are, as is commonly said, on the “same page.” But in the long term, this position may become increasingly untenable. The army’s steering power over citizens had previously been hegemonic, maintained by consensus. But it increasingly requires coercion to maintain its position; the costs of its dominance are rising.
I’ve focused here on how the state is responding to outlier challenges from citizens. But while pushback from people increases the momentum for change, the main struggle against the civil-military imbalance is being fought by political parties and within the judiciary, though they themselves are compromised and riven. The process is fraught; its actors, flawed; its past, blighted. But it’s still the best bet for deepening democracy.
Borges, in his Book of Imaginary Beings, unearths such a symbiosis through a strange creature, A Bao A Qu. It lives on the steps of a tower, atop which lies the best landscape in the world. Only perfect people can reach the top. A Bao A Qu sleeps, shapeless and translucent, until someone starts climbing. The climbers’ ascension gives the creature form, color, and light, but when the climber is unable to summit because of imperfections, A Bao A Qu hurtles back down to amorphous dormancy, waiting for the next attempt to reach his nirvana.
This piece was written before the outbreak of COVID-19. As I read through the edited version, the events in it seem distant, almost out of place, amid a global pandemic. People are suffering, the economy is bleeding; elected governments have stepped in to do what they can given limited resources; the army is standing alongside civilians, helping unreservedly like they do after all natural calamities. Does this change everything or will things merely be rearranged to maintain equilibrium? We asked this question almost two decades ago after 9/11 and the War on Terror. Still haven’t been able to answer it.