‘Disappearing’ activists only betrays the weakness of the state.
So far five activists have gone missing. I don’t know of any of them personally. I can’t say I am even familiar with their social media content or activism. One of them, Salman Haider, is a faculty member at Fatima Jinnah University.
No group has claimed responsibility for abducting them. Reports suggest that in the case of Haider his cellphone was not switched off after his abduction and his wife got a message asking her to recover their car from area and point X, not exactly the modus operandi of groups that kidnap people. There’s no news that law enforcement agencies have been able to track them through their cellphones, a fairly easy and standard exercise with today’s technology even if the cell is switched off. This is why criminal gangs kidnapping a person immediately get rid of his/her cellphone because that’s an easily trackable device.
Two of those gone missing were picked up from their homes. At least one report suggests that their Facebook and WhatsApp accounts had remained active post-disappearance, though this writer could not independently verify that.
Be that as it may, prima facie this points to the fact that whoever has taken them is not particularly bothered about law enforcement tracking the disappeared. No terrorist or criminal group can afford to do that or be so brazen. The implication: they are in the custody of some state agency.
The strand common to all of them, I am told by those who followed their activism, is their critical approach to state policies, extremism and in some cases the military’s policies.
Is there something more than this? There are many among us who are critical of state policies, rage against extremism, criticize the military, not just through our writings but also from the bully pulpits of television. What extra bit might these people have done to be thus picked up?
I don’t know. What I do know, however, is somewhat simple: a state that breaks its legal-constitutional compact with its citizen(s), regardless of its military strength, hardware and fancy platforms, is internally weak. Every state has multiple ethnic, linguistic groups whose interests often diverge. Other interest groups use pressure, lobbying, the media and, now, different digital platforms to agitate a number of issues—from taxes and tariffs to reforms to policies. The ambit of such dissent is, and can be, very wide. All of this is normal business. Politics tries to aggregate these interests. That is where political parties and legislation come in. The courts play an important role as arbiters, developing jurisprudence on points of law and interpreting the constitution. None of this is linear; most of it is noisy; some of it can be downright messy.
We have all this and more, the more being terrorism and extremism.
But there’s another thing too, a bird called national interest. History tells us that it is a fluid concept. Today’s Japan and Germany are very different from pre-World War II or World War I Japan and Germany. Those states in statist attributes retain most of them but something changed after WWII. To be a Nazi today would be criminal; to go against the Nazi party yesterday would have got the dissident a one-way trip to the gas chamber. This is true of most states and different and differing times. Yet, at any given point in time, states consider their national interest in that particular moment as something eternal and cast in stone. But there’s another equally important concept: public interest. Scholars have determined that states are more secure when there’s less friction between how they define the national and public interests. The greater the discrepancy between the two, the more vulnerable the state.
There’s an even simpler touchstone, actually. Today, when everyone needs a passport, we have come to look at the concept of state as truth. It’s not. At best it’s a fact. But it’s a fact grounded in fiction, like every other aspect of our individual and collective life. There’s nothing biological or organic about it. It’s not like a family with the same DNA. So, we have to sustain this fiction through various means: selective amnesia, stories, flags, national anthems, war heroes, military parades, invocations to nationhood and national spirit and much else. It’s about Foucault’s carceral culture where schools and barracks and prisons play an important role to discipline those within the territorial confines of a state.
Economics and distributive policies play an important role too. If the state is exploitative, people will want to opt out; if it’s equitable, people will find it more beneficial to stay in than opt out. You can’t opt out of your DNA but you can from a state. Many states have imploded throughout history and many more will in times to come.
If five people can become a threat through their writings, then the fiction hasn’t become a ‘fact’. At best it shows that the legal-constitutional compact is weak and some sections think they can be brazen about imposing what they think is the national interest or is in the national interest, public interest be damned. We have seen that before and it hasn’t worked. Far from turning the fiction into a ‘fact’ it steadily takes the sheen off of the fiction. There’s no system that’s not a prison, what Bentham called the panopticon. But people had much rather be happy than unhappy inmates. They must believe in the fiction.
In a country where we have had peace deals with those who have killed and where highest officials even talk about mainstreaming erstwhile killers and terrorists politically, it should be a matter of grave concern that writers go missing here. The courts have already spoken about enforced disappearances. If there’s a charge against the disappeared, they should be arrested and tried as per laid down procedures. The only force that has arresting and prospecting powers is the police, not the intelligence agencies. If we do not fight against this practice, before long it will become a trend and many more will find themselves in the rabbit hole with nary a whisper from anyone.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider