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Social media, a weapon or voice

Blocking peaceful channels of expression only opens venues for violent expression of pent-up frustration. It is time to rethink the security state paradigm

Social media, a weapon or voice

For Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist philosopher and communist politician, men are not ruled by force alone; they are ruled by ideas too. In his The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx informs us about the source of “ruling ideas”. “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” Marx contends.

Narratives are important because they are the repositories of ideas that either seek to justify or discredit “ruling ideas” of a particular time. Pakistan has its own variation of competing narratives.

In his book titled Story and Discourse, Seymour Chatman tells his reader how a narrative is story and discourse. A story comprises content, which includes actions, happenings, characters and settings. Discourse is the means by which content is communicated. Pakistan may not be in the throes of supposedly ‘fifth generation warfare’, but the country is definitely in the midst of a war of competing narratives.Farman2

It is the state-centric hegemonic narrative of security state versus the society-centric counter-hegemonic narrative of liberal challenge. My purpose of envisioning this bifurcation is just to show the respective loci of the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic narratives. The bifurcation is not arbitrary. One finds supportive voices for the security state narrative within society and one may also find a shred of support for the liberal narrative coming from the state.

The concept of state is fluid. It, sometimes, includes the government and the unelected security bureaucracy in a broader sense. In a narrower sense, state is the unelected security bureaucracy.

The war is about how Pakistan should function as a state: will it continue to be a security state or should it gradually shift to a welfare state. A security state not only allocates inordinate resources towards defence at the cost of social welfare, it also departs from civil and political liberties even when constitution of the country enshrines those liberties.

In the state, since almost every action is seen through the prism of security state paradigm, the very provision of security limits civil and political liberties of citizens in contravention to the very fundamentals of democracy. Here executive authoritarianism of the nonelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable bureaucracies masquerade behind a democratic façade in democracies like ours.

On the other hand, a welfare state takes care of health, education and other services such as employment needs of its citizens without compromising on security, the state of being protected from dangers and threats. Here security is designed to protect civil and political liberties of the citizenry. Nevertheless, on occasions, even the otherwise mature democracies deviate from civil and political liberties in time of nation-threatening emergencies.

The war is about how Pakistan should function as a state: will it continue to be a security state or should it gradually shift to a welfare state. A security state not only allocates inordinate resources towards defence at the cost of social welfare, it also departs from civil and political liberties even when constitution of the country enshrines those liberties.

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) outlines in Article 4 “…state parties to the present covenant may take measures derogating from their obligations under the present covenant to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation…” Post 9/11, the United States flouted laws arbitrarily in the name of national security, something, perhaps no law — even that of the US — provided for. Nonetheless, what differentiates a security state from a welfare state is that the former remains under undeclared, never-ending emergency, which is necessary for the continuity in power, and perks and privileges of the ruling clique.

The war of narratives is an old one though the battlefield is new. Its earlier episodes were fought through the media of Radio Pakistan, textbook histories, Pakistan Television (PTV), and the press. Before 2000, the state had a legal monopoly over what was to be produced and broadcast. Whatever went against the security state’s agenda, the state had the authority to knock it down. Social media is the new entrant to the battle of ideas.

Social media has given voice to the counter-hegemonic, oppressed narrative. It has, for the very first time, seriously challenged the state’s undisputed monopoly over mediums and, by implication, the state narrative. First, it is a matter of jurisdiction. Facebook or Twitter is not based in Pakistan to be taken off the air, a weapon of choice in the country to deal with any news channel which is critical of powerbrokers’ priorities. Even if the state chooses to block these social networking websites, virtual private networks (VPNs) give free and uninterrupted access to blocked websites, easily bypassing state censorship. Likewise, the state risks wrath of the ever swelling number of the connected citizenry.

According to Internet World Stats, by December 31, 2017, 32 million (32,000,000) Pakistanis were Facebook users. By the end of December 2018, the figure of Facebook users must have increased.

The origin of both narratives is traced back to the Raj in the Indian subcontinent. The British introduced representative institutions, civil and political liberties in the Indian subcontinent over a long period of time. The democratic experience of united India was uneven though. Today’s India was the earlier beneficiary of the extension of democratic principles than today’s Pakistan which was not only a later entrant to the introduction of democratic ideals, but the British also founded a security state in the then Indian northwest. This explains, as one of the reasons, why civil institutions enjoy supremacy over their security counterparts in India. Democracy takes time to get strengthened. Post partition, India also had an uninterrupted democratic experience unlike in our case when democracy was derailed on three different occasions.

Pakistan’s “enduring rivalry” with India, Afghanistan’s irredentist claims across eastern side of the Durand Line and an assortment of administrative, financial and capacity issues after independence only militated against the strengthening of democracy, and civil and political liberties in the country. These issues never cease to infuse a new lease of life to the security state paradigm.

We need to think whether social media is a weapon in the hands of our enemies in the so-called ‘fifth generation warfare’ or it is a voice of the aggrieved? Either way, to be relevant in the 21st century, we must rethink and revisit the security state paradigm. In hindsight, blocking peaceful channels of expression only opens venues for violent expression of pent-up frustration. History is a guide for those who pay heed to it!

Farman Kakar

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