Across Pakistan, the Indian state has been criticised for trying to silence criticism using sedition charges. But when the same happened against peaceful protesters in Pakistan, there is a deafening silence, writes Mehr Munir.
On January 29, several major newspapers of Pakistan reported that sedition charges had been laid against a school in India. The charges were another blister in the already festering political situation created by the controversial Citizenship Law passed by the Modi government. The school had staged a play which showed students ‘talking about how they feared the government would ask millions of Muslims to prove their nationality or be expelled from India’.
In Pakistan, no one took issue with the political commentaries describing the charges and the sedition law as absurd, draconian, archaic or ‘British-era’.
In fact, India’s citizenship laws and the subsequent state crackdown on dissent is one of the few issues on which Pakistan’s usually hopelessly divided political circles share a similar stance.
In their reports on the charges laid against the school, at least two Pakistani mainstream newspapers referred to the sedition law as ‘colonial’ and/or ‘British-era’. However, in the same week, the same Pakistani newspapers reported arrest of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) chief Manzoor Pashteen and later of the Islamabad protesters, also under sedition charges. This time, words such as ‘colonial’ and ‘British era’ appeared nowhere in the reports. Was it a subconscious lapse, or a deliberate omission?
Like the Citizenship Laws passed by the Indian government, the situation in Kashmir sparked widespread outrage in Pakistan. India was dubbed a terrorist state, and allegations of human rights abuses by the Indian army in Kashmir were voiced loudly and clearly. Perhaps what some Pakistanis at that time did not realise was that they were adding their voice to that of Indian activists such as Arundhati Roy, who has spoken out repeatedly against Indian state policy in Kashmir, and who has also been accused, of course, of sedition.
By the logic of those who oppose questioning or criticising the army or the government, Arundhati Roy should also be prosecuted and silenced. While opponents of Pakistan’s sedition laws and the recent arrests have remained true to their narrative and their ethos, proponents of the arrests have comprehensively abandoned the human rights and freedom to protest narrative they invoked in the context of Indian policies, and have instead flown down the route of not only political and rational, but also ethical incoherence.
At this point, pro-sedition groups may resort to the argument that while the Indian army was actually guilty of human rights abuses, Pakistan’s army was guilty of none, and therefore measures have rightly been taken to silence PTM and its sympathisers. The argument, however, only increases in its incoherence if that point is attempted.
Across Pakistan, the Indian state has been criticised not only for committing atrocities and marginalising certain groups, but also for trying to silence criticism. Even if the Pakistani army is guilty of no offence, silencing criticism remains an unconstitutional, undemocratic and draconian measure.
Returning to the colonial issue, it is difficult to surmise how much of the history of the sedition law its proponents are aware of (though they have no excuse to not be). In October 2019, an editorial titled ‘Cases of Sedition’ appeared in a major Pakistani newspaper, exploring the law’s role in Indian history, and arguing that the existence of the sedition law in India is a ‘testimony to its rulers’ moral blindness and constitutional illiteracy’.
Can the same not be said of Pakistan’s rulers now? The article, which is fairly recent, also referred to the Tilak versus Empire sedition case of 1916, in which Tilak was defended by none other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Jinnah also defended him, unsuccessfully, in 1908). In addition to a linguistic argument, Jinnah emphasised the distinction between ‘loyalty’ to the crown and the right to criticise when defending Tilak. It is apparent from the current situation, but we are still unable to distinguish between criticising and being ‘disloyal’ (though the question of loyalty raises additional questions), and have comfortably distanced ourselves from those aspects of Jinnah’s career which do not bolster the mainstream state narrative.
Something that possibly transcends the Pakistani society’s many boundaries is the popularity of Noor Jehan. Given the universality of her popularity, it is fair to assume people on all sides of the current debate mostly celebrate and respect the late singer.
Interestingly, one of Noor Jehan’s most famous songs is her recitation of Faiz’s Mujh se Pehli si Muhabbat. When she tried to sing it at a charity event, she was prohibited from doing so by Pakistani officials, and when Iqbal Bano, also a widely celebrated figure in Pakistan, sang ‘hum dekheinge’ she was blatantly violating Zia’s ban on recitation of Faiz’s verses.
Those who now support sedition laws and back the recent arrests must also then feel compelled to not only justify the ban on Faiz’s poetry under Zia, but also to condemn Iqbal Bano for undermining the authority of an institution they so staunchly believe should never be questioned.