JNU Protests: Is Political Dissent Acceptable Here, Also?

JNU protest

The arrest and treatment of Kanhaiya Kumar and Indian government’s militant overreaction to protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University have given a black eye to India which claims to be the world’s largest democracy. In Pakistan, the response to this has been a heartening defence of the right to free speech and political dissent, and a strong reaction against hypernationalism. Pakistani media has declared that ‘Calling the brave students of JNU anti-Indian is a slur. They are holding up the best progressive traditions, aspiring to form a more democratic society’ and op-ed writers are saying ‘it is time for everyone to stand up and be counted’ against fascism.

This change of heart and new love of dissent and free speech among our countrymen will sound like sweet music to the ears of those like Asma Jahangir, Marvi Sirmed, and Husain Haqqani who have been hounded and threatened for daring to challenge official narratives and hypernationalistic ideology. After being forced out of Daily Times, now Mohammad Taqi will be given his own talk show on Express News?

No. Not here. Not now.

While we are strongly defending freedom of dissent and rallying against fascism, we are also preparing to send a cricket fan to prison for 10 years for celebrating a player from the wrong country.

Umar DarazIn an amazing display of blind hypocrisy, we are defending political dissidents in India and persecuting a poor cricket fan for the crime of appreciating the skill of Virat Kohli. Umar Daraz never organised a protest. He never gave speeches or wrote pamphlets against Pakistan. In this country, such acts are not necessary. According to police, merely holding an Indian flag to congratulate a cricket idol is an act ‘against the ideology of Pakistan’ and must be severely punished by destroying an innocent life.

Our media talking heads can smile and give all the comments on supporting freedom of speech and political dissent, but the joke is on us. India is wrongly handling the protests at JNU, but can we honestly believe such a debate could even be allowed to take place here? If you are unsure, please ask Umar Daraz what he thinks.

Should we ban anti-Pakistan ideas? Or debate them?

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When I was a boy, I was would hide outside the door and listen when chacha would visit and he and my father would spend hours discussing and debating politics late into the night. Chacha was a diehard Jamaati, and my father was an unapologetic socialist. It was always interesting to me to listen as the paths of their opinions and beliefs would easily come together and then just as easily part ways. It was like a dance of ideas taking place to the tune of life and society. One afternoon, I tried to impress my father by telling him about something I had heard Qazi Hussain Ahmad say and how it was obviously nonsense. To my surprise, my father took a stern look in his eye and asked me to explain myself. I repeated again what I had said before. For the next half hour my father grilled me with questions, all defending the Jamaati Amir’s position. I felt confused and on the point of tears when my father finally dismissed me.

Later that night, he called me in where he and my uncle were talking. “Beta,” he said, “have you thought any more about our discussion earlier?” I looked down at my feet and told him that I didn’t know what to think, that I thought he would have agreed with me. I could feel the men looking at me and I was burning with embarrassment. My father put his hand on my shoulder and said, “What I think is not the point. You put forth an opinion that wasn’t really yours. Even if you think you believe it, it will always belong to someone else until you understand not only why you believe it, but why someone else might not. Only then will you have fully embraced the idea, and only then it will be yours.” My uncle smiled and said, “Your father and I enjoy these talks so much not because we have any hope of converting the other. I gave up on talking any sense into him years ago.” My father laughed. “The point is we loved these debates because it is through debate that we understand each other’s point of view, and it makes us think more about what we believe and why.”

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Biggest problem with Cyber Crime Bill: It’s an admission of failure

cyber crime bill

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act aka “Cyber Crimes Bill” is likely to become law despite outcry from the public and global human rights organisations. The reasons it is a bad law has been explained in great detail, and Human Rights Watch has said that the bill “neither protects the public from legitimate online security concerns nor respects fundamental human rights”. However there is another problem with the proposed law that has received far less attention but could be the worst problem: It is an admission of failure by the state.

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Free Speech Hypocrisy: Theirs…and Ours

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Debate about free speech has almost completely overshadowed the tragic 16th December attacks that supposedly marked a turning point in the nation. While that painful day will never be forgotten, it is hard not to think that we have moved on to a more convenient point of outrage – one that allows us to unite against an enemy that is much more convenient to rally against seeing as how they are in far away lands armed only with pens rather than our own backyard armed with guns and bombs. However pertaining to ‘freedom of speech’, there are certain double standards, however, that are glaring and must be given due consideration given the present controversies.

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Twitter Ban: Blind, Deaf and Dumb

This was supposed to be our weekend. President Zardari landed in Chicago and it really looked like he was going to use his fast-approaching-legendeary negotiating skills – the same ones he’s used to keep a relatively stable coalition in the government and to end the stalemate in Pak-US ties – to turn around sinking Pak-US relations. Ambassador to the US Sherry Rehman was in the middle of a media blitz, explaining Pakistan’s position on CNN and then publishing an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune that outlined steps the Americans could take to help re-start Pak-US relations. Then, the lights went out.

As the NATO summit started its first day, Pakistan was in the dark about what was going on because PTA blocked access to Twitter, the social media site made famous for breaking news and providing real-time insights into what is happening across the world. Twitter played a major role in informing the world about the Arab Spring uprisings. Saner heads prevailed, though, as the Prime Minister ordered that access to the service be reinstated immediately. But for about eight hours, Twitter users were left trying to circumvent the ban by using proxy accounts and other methods.

The decision to block access to Twitter was made in order to protect the emotions of the masses from seeing Tweets that were derogatory toward Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This is the same reason that Facebook was blocked a couple of years ago, and it makes as little sense now as it did then.

Can we be honest about a few things, please? First of all, “the masses” are not using Twitter. There are about 2 million Pakistanis on Twitter – roughly 1 per cent of the population. As far as I can tell, it’s mostly an elite audience – politicians, journalists, bloggers and other highly educated people discussing culture and politics at a high level of discourse, primarily in English.

Worse, the Twitter ban completely overshadowed what our representatives were trying to say, and detracted from our image as a modern global power. Where were all those self-appointed guardians of the national ghairat as a hyperactive minority was actually making our nation look foolish in the eyes of the world?

The bigger issue, though, is that, especially with Twitter, blocking access to the site blocked access to important information about events that directly affect our country. Our leaders were in the US attending a critical summit of NATO to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, and we were cut off from one of the best sources for breaking information. We were also refrained from giving our own opinion and reacting to breaking events. By blocking Twitter, PTA didn’t silence those who would defame the Prophet (PBUH), they silenced Pakistan.

None of these sites requires anyone to look at offensive material. Actually, nothing requires anyone to use any of these websites at all. If you don’t want to see offensive posts on Twitter, don’t follow offensive people. If you don’t want to see offensive material on Facebook, don’t go to offensive pages. If you believe that you can’t control yourself from looking at offensive material on these sites, don’t use them at all. Leave the rest of us alone.