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Pakistan: Rule of the ’danda’

by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, 13 May 2012

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Dawn, 11 May 2012

As Pakistan’s love-hate relationship with the mythical ‘rule of law’ unfolds, the very real rule of the danda continues to manifest itself in virtually every little nook and cranny of society, unnamed if not unnoticed.

Every thana and katcheri in this country — the very institutions that purport to uphold the rule of law (while epitomising the rule of the danda) — is a theatre of suffering for the millions of minions who pose as the state’s citizens.

The marketplace for goods and services of all kinds, including human labour, is mediated by a healthy dose of coercive force, or, at the very least, the threat of it. In our homes, physical and emotional abuse is commonplace, justified sometimes in the name of tradition or religion, and sometimes not justified at all.

While too much is made of the spectacular political violence that enters our homes every day via cable TV, it is difficult not to sit up and take notice of the full force of the state unleashed in Lyari, in much of Balochistan and in large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. Here too the rule of the danda poses as the rule of law; it is in the name of reestablishing law and order that the state undertakes its unending military operations.

While it is true that the most brazen examples of the rule of the danda feature the state’s security apparatus as chief protagonist, I want to emphasise that there is something much deeper at work here, an authoritarian ethic that is evident across much of our social terrain.

This should not be taken to mean that there is something inherent to our make-up that makes us prone to violence; indeed such a culturalist explanation would be missing the point entirely. It is by uncovering deeply embedded structures of power that a meaningful account of the rule of the danda can be constructed.

The educational institution is one of the most important edifices of power in modern society. In principle, the school is supposed to nurture our children but in practice, in this country at least, what we have instead is a cane-wielding method of instruction that crushes the creative instinct.

In the vast majority of schools across the length and breadth of this country, inculcated in the minds of our youth is a conception of respect (read: power) that ties it to whoever wields the biggest stick.

The small minority of school-going young people that make it to institutions of ‘higher learning’ are ill-equipped to ask critical questions, let alone formulate critical opinions. This is particularly true for those who are exposed to the social sciences and humanities (although many natural scientists would likely lament a similar state of affairs in their respective disciplines).

It is not the students’ fault, of course, that they struggle to keep pace with the demands of specialised academia. What many do well, sadly, is ape the authoritarian attitudes that they have grown up observing.

They might be inclined to unlearn the rule of the danda, at least to some extent, but for the fact that it is as widespread at the institution of ‘higher learning’ as it was at their local government school.

The university is supposed to be an island of freedom, a place where eclectic ideas are allowed to flourish and structures of power challenged. Instead, many of our universities are repressive learning and living environments, and administrators pride themselves on how successfully they limit rather than create spaces for expression. The logic seems borrowed from the men in khaki — defend the proverbial ‘national interest’ from the people themselves.

It can be argued that our universities were far closer to the ideal-type before the Zia years, when state-sponsored thugs in the form of the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulba (IJT) were given free rein to clamp down on progressive ideas and progressives to boot. This may be true, but a great deal of time has now passed since the end of the Zia dictatorship. Tellingly, it has also been a decade since the Higher Education Commission (HEC) was created with the mandate to transform our universities from bastions of mediocrity to academic institutions worth their name.

Perhaps it did not occur to those that bestowed their gracious educational vision upon us that universities — in fact all educational institutions — should churn out emotionally and physically healthy citizens that think not only about grades, civil service exams and the lure of money. That Pakistan needs not only proficient scientists and professionals, but also artists and writers. That what we need most of all is folks who agree to disagree and indulge in that very old-fashioned habit of intellectual honesty.

The fact of the matter is that those who exercise power anywhere, and particularly in institutional spaces such as the public university, are not likely to ever be persuaded that freedom is a good thing in and unto itself. Even the most sophisticated structures of power that propagate the illusion of freedom survive by delimiting it.

As such, the educational institution will always be a battleground pitting those who seek freedom against those who curtail it.
Unfortunately, Pakistani youth have been so intellectually and culturally emaciated that they tend to reproduce the rule of the danda more often than they resist it.

Yet resist it they do, even if only in short spurts. A few weeks ago, on these pages I wrote that public universities provide at least some space for free expression in a society where cultural repression is the norm rather than the exception.

In years to come, as the demands of commercialisation become more pressing, and the desire for more democratic freedoms becomes more acute, the rule of danda will be faced with one of its biggest challenges on university campuses.

More than 40 years ago, it was students and their teachers who were at the forefront of an anti-dictatorship movement that changed the meaning of politics in this country. Such dramatic events are unlikely to repeat themselves anytime soon.
Universities and the graduates they produce, however, will continue to influence how society develops. This is why they need to be saved from those more loyal than the king.

The writer Aasim Sajjad Akhtar teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


The above article from Dawn is reproduced here in public interest and is for educational and non commercial use.