Freedom of thought is never free!

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What is happening today in Pakistan may be deemed as purge on creative thought. This is a dangerous precedent and needs to be checked.

Freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think.

Banning books is the hallmark of regressive societies. Pakistan is still dealing with the aftermath of the Zia years. Intolerance and extremism has seeped into the national fabric due to General Zia’s draconian policies.

By Nazarul Islam

If Pakistanis do not have confidence in their own beliefs, they should have reasons to fear the curbs on freedom of thought!  I have always believed that the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible. And, freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think. Readers, please bear this in mind, there is no freedom of thought, without doubt…

Pakistan has boasted of a checkered history of banning writers, books and social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Of late a new wave of ban has engulfed the country. Quite recently, the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board banned one hundred school books in a single day for containing content deemed ‘anti-national’ and ‘blasphemous’.

PCTB’s managing director, Rai Manzoor Hussain Nasir, told Karachi’s popular TV channel that they are “currently examining over 10,000 books being taught in private schools”. All of this is taking place under the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board Act, 2015, which was passed by the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government. The list of the 100 books that have been banned was tweeted by the journalist, Benazir Shah, on Tuesday.

A lot of these were social studies books, some of them were English-learning books, some were Urdu books; there was, apparently, a book where counting concepts were explained to young students by showing them pictures of animals—pigs!

To add salt to the wound, the Punjab assembly passed the Tahaffuz-e-Bunyad-e-Islam bill, 2020. It gives the Directorate General Public Relations powers to visit and inspect any printing press, publication house, book store and confiscate any book, before or after printing.

On top of banning books, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has blocked an online game, ‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’. Dawn’s Ramsha Jahangir reported that as per an order by the PTA, the “impact of PUBG is leading to the issue of ‘moral turpitude’. The term moral turpitude connotes anything done against just, honesty, modesty or good morals. It is deprivation of character and devoid of morality…”

PTA (Pakistan Telecommunications Authority) has also repeatedly stated that PUBG makes people less productive. “Sitting around in one place and playing for long hours is not good for physical health. Staring at the computer screen for long hours can affect eyesight and cause a headache.” Only a week ago, the PTA banned the live-streaming app, Bigo, and issued a final warning to TikTok for ‘obscene’ and ‘immoral’ content.

In a globalized world, banning online apps or books makes little sense, but then there is a culture of moral policing that has seeped into our society. We somehow want to control what others want to read or watch or even play. Obviously, such bans are another form of censorship.

Having banned columns and censored the media, those who are in positions of power now—are desirous of placing a ban on what our children are being taught at schools. This is a dangerous precedent. We have seen some academics being fired from their jobs due to their activism. Critical thinking, it seems, is a threat. One of the books that have been banned had quotes of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Pakistanis have finally decided now that they don’t want their children to learn or to expose them to history that is different from the State narrative, or get acquainted with historical figures who do not belong to or relate to their society. This has been the collective, petulant behavior of decision makers in the country.

In this 21st century, banning books or apps or games hardly makes any sense. And, in the age of the internet, one can always read these books online and/or use VPN to access banned apps. What these measures expose is that those with authority want to control our thinking and our actions.

The federal minister for science and technology, Fawad Chaudhry, has been quite vocal on the issue of these recent bans and the new bill that was passed by the Punjab assembly. In a series of tweets, Chaudhry said, “Islam in Pakistan is not threatened by TikTok or by books. What the people of Pakistan are threatened by are sectarian divisions and extremism.” Chaudhry is not alone. A lot of people are perturbed by these actions.

Banning books is the hallmark of regressive societies. Pakistan is still dealing with the aftermath of the Zia years. Intolerance and extremism has seeped into the national fabric due to General Zia’s draconian policies. It will take decades to undo the damage that was done back in the 1980s, but if Pakistanis continue down this path of censorship, will end up in a place from where there is no coming back. Societies have evolved over the years just like the human beings; they try to move forward — but unfortunately for Pakistanis, they have slid down further!

Not surprisingly, intellectual freedoms are being thwarted in the name of national interest.

On the political front, Opposition parties are ready for an All-Parties Conference after Eid. What this APC ‘promises’ and what will actually be ‘achieved’ is something we will see in the coming weeks or months. The promise of ‘ousting the government’ seems far-fetched. So far, this looks like a political statement. On the other hand, the government’s performance has left a lot to be desired.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government will be completing its two years in power. There are three more years to go till its term ends. Masses have seen more inflation and less economic growth over these two years. There are many ways of judging a government’s performance, such as economic indicators, foreign policy and so on.

While the economic performance can be explained better by experts, those in the print media have seen a decline of our fundamental freedoms, under this government.

From the arrest of Jang group’s Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman by the country’s accountability bureau to the recent abduction (and subsequent release the same day) of the journalist, Matiullah Jan, by unknown men, one wonders where we are heading. Every media house is under pressure.

Columns have been dropped, columnists have been blacklisted, and the news channels have been taken off air or thrown at the back numbers of cables, the space for free speech is shrinking every day.

Pakistan’s media are no stranger to censorship, but honestly, I have never seen this sort of depression and disillusionment in a decade-long career in the media. Journalists have complained of their access being blocked because of their critical reporting of the government. Online trolling by accounts that are openly associated with the ruling party has now become the norm.

Some women journalists have faced attempts to hack into their social media accounts. All of this makes working in the media even harder. This does not even factor in the psychological aspect women face as a result of the organized campaigns to discredit women in society. One wonders how long this will continue or whether this will become the ‘new normal’ that we may have to live with now.

In these trying times, one is reminded of the words of the poet, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi: “‘Kyun’ bhi kehna jurm hai…/ ‘Kaise’ bhi kehna jurm hai…/ Saans lene ki to aazadi mayassar hai… magar… (Asking ‘why’ is a crime…/ Asking ‘how’ is also a crime…/We have the freedom to breathe… but…)”

Let me say here, there exists a rarity of the current scenario—that one may think what one likes and speaks what one thinks.

It is really a pity that our culture doesn’t have a good vernacular word for an oppositionist or even for someone who tries to do his own thinking: the word ‘dissident’ can’t be self-conferred because it is really a title of honor that has to be won or earned, while terms like ‘gadfly’ or ‘maverick’ are somehow trivial and condescending as well as over-full of self-regard.

And I’ve lost count of the number of memoirs by old comrades or ex-comrades that have titles like ‘Against the Stream,’ ‘Against the Current,’ ‘Minority of One,’ ‘Breaking Ranks’ and so forth—all of them lending point to Harold Rosenberg’s withering remark about ‘the herd of independent minds.’

Even when I was quite young I had disliked being called a ‘rebel’: it seemed to make the patronizing suggestion that ‘questioning authority’ was part of a ‘phase’ through which I would naturally go. A true intellectual, a genuine one, is always an outsider …he is a person who lives in self-imposed exile on the margins of society.

Should the writers begin what would be deemed as the catharsis of ongoing traits of culture and collective thought?

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The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist settled in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America.  

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