When the Nazi Germany invaded Poland to launch World War 2, the poet W.H. Auden called the period leading up to this disastrous conflict a “low, dishonest decade.” It was termed dishonest because people pretended war would never take place, that Germany would remain democratic rather than turn into an uncontrollably, fascist, authoritarian regime despite overwhelming evidence of Hitler’s usurpation of judiciary and systemic unleashing of unrelenting propaganda.
Historical accounts from citizens of nations that slid into fascism tell us it begins slowly. It progresses gradually and then all of a sudden, there is no end in sight. Pakistanis may not like to admit it, but the term fascism applies all too well to this time in our own country. We are witnessing relentless attacks on democratic institutions – the press, the courts, the opposition and now, the subjugation of cultural and intellectual domain to one bureaucratic department.
The Punjab assembly led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the political dynasty of Gujarat passed the Punjab Tahafuzz-e-Bunyad Islam bill. The act contains vague guidelines on objectionable material in published form. Clause 3e relates to forbids the publication and distribution of “any material that is in conflict with commonly accepted standards of morality and decency”. There are zero definitions regarding the constitution of morality, decency and the acceptance thereof. As a matter of fact, the most intense public conversations have not been able to define parameters for these words. The ultimate responsibility hence lies with a single office to determine the scope and ban everything that falls within. No bureaucrat or outsourced expert would act leniently in light of such obscurely phrased laws, simply to avoid the wrath of right wing ideologues. This would result in a ban on books that teach science, religion, politics and so much more but don’t meet the laughable ‘accepted standards of morality’ in the form of graphic details and so on.
Perhaps, the most deeply disturbing aspect of this law are the sweeping powers granted to the Directorate General Public relations to visit and inspect any printing press, publication house, bookstore and confiscate any book, before or after printing if deemed to be ‘pre-judicial to national interest’. This is government sponsored securitisation of intellectual space, critical thinking and guarding of ideological frontiers. The manifestation of this policy will undoubtedly materialise into ban on books teaching non-biased history or anything critical. It is a clear cut, green signal to ban authors and ban on import of books that criticise Pakistan’s past or current regime. Perhaps, the most damaging consequence of this is developing and breeding a homogenous, singular, biased view of past and present in a very diverse group of people. The lack of intellectual activity and reflection on Pakistani society, politics, socio-religious roots will produce mindless robots over capable citizens. While Pakistan’s history is littered with ban on books, nothing resembles government policy like this. It represents a deliberate government effort to marginalise and exclude alternative accounts of policymaking, regime criticism and so much more.
It is also severely disconcerting that, in an otherwise authoritarian legal instrument that resides all power with DGPR, the only external oversight is outsourced Muttahida Ulema Board vis a vis books on ‘religion’. There are many a publications which fall within that realm ranging from debates on science/religion to poetry by the likes of Manto. A group of scholarly figures can be equipped to interpret and explain Islam but have no business in deciding the books available for consumption.
That there has been significant backlash against regulation of cultural learning and intellectual activity by many is known but the bill has also irked the ire of Shia organisations who have voiced criticism and rejection. The bill, staggeringly, stoked sectarian tensions by imposing Sunni practices in a blanket policy which resulted in threats of protest.
The intentions of legislation sponsors are multiple. A desire to banish dissent but crucially please far right religious people, who conveniently happen to be protectors of Islamic ideology and occupy large swaths of areas of Punjab such as Gujarat. Enforcing strict regulation of our cultural space, intellectual domain and learning was all too easy for PTI and Chaudry Pervaiz Elahi to attain immediate political gain.
It is our responsibility to resist and desist these fascist attempts.