When we’re younger, we’re taught that there are no stupid questions. “Ask questions!” Well. Let’s just chill for a second. “When we’re younger”? Who is ‘we’? Some of us, for sure. But all of us? Not really.
Unesco’s Education For All, Global Monitoring Report 2015 was released last week. Pakistan is, unsurprisingly, a global bottom feeder in how much it invests in its children, and as a result, how well positioned its children are for the 21st century. So this idea that ‘we’ are taught to ask questions is… how does one say this politely? The idea that ‘we’ are taught to ask questions is ridiculous. Quite the opposite. ‘We’ are not taught very much at all. Almost half of all children between five and sixteen are not in any kind of school at all. The vast majority of the children that do attend school are not getting Eton and Harrow educations. Very few, if any, classrooms in Pakistan are encouraging children to ask questions. As adults, we are constantly bombarded with news and information that suggests the insidious dangers of asking questions.
Sabeen Mahmud asked a lot of questions. Some of them were stupid questions. A lot of self-conscious people would turn their backs on many such questions. Sabeen just kept on asking. That’s heroic. That’s the power of the question. That’s why she’s mourned from Karachi to Khyber and from Samantha Power of the US government to Raheel Khursheed of Twitter. Some of us knew Sabeen well, many others knew her only in passing (like me) and most didn’t know her at all. Yet the outpouring of sympathy, sadness and anger at her murder is palpable.
Who killed Sabeen? The theories are based on the pre-conceived biases that we have. My instinctive first reaction was disbelief. Sabeen, and those that have been most deeply traumatised by this assassination are already deeply marginalised people in Pakistan. The national discourse offers hardly any daylight to their world view. You don’t need to kill any of them, because the space for their world view is already de-oxygenated. Sure, there is an outsized presence of ‘these people’ on social media, but for the most part, ‘these people’ are restricted to the English-language press, blogosphere and social media space. This isn’t nothing, but it isn’t like the state-sponsored power that is enjoyed by those serenading the crowds at Defence Day shows of strength by the Jamaat-ud-Dawaa. Why would anyone want to kill Sabeen?
We never find killers in this country. And when we do, we find ways to keep them alive. Mumtaz Qadri is a saint, apparently, and Saulat Mirza, as long as he keeps singing like a canary about the ills that plague the House that Altaf Built, is a pretty reformed target killer. But who killed Mustafa, Raza Rumi’s driver? Who tried to kill Raza? Who killed Rashid Rehman? Who killed Saleem Shehzad? Who killed Perween Rehman?
The national discourse screams out: ‘don’t know, don’t care’. And so the power of the question is eroded. That is what is most sinister about Sabeen Mahmud’s murder. And that is why those who already have a healthy distrust of our national institutions, including our intelligence services, are quick to point the finger. The accusations that bedevil the Pakistani state are a product of a deep and wide chasm of trust between those citizens that value the power of the question, and the state agencies responsible for providing citizens, the space and freedom to ask those questions.
The state suffers from the problem of plausible accusability. The people of Pakistan, especially that small sliver of our country that wants to and has the capacity to ask questions, even stupid ones, suffer from insecurity. Sabeen Mahmud gets killed within the broad confines of these two realities: the plausible accusability of the Pakistani state in the murder of citizens one the one hand, and the insecurity, fear and contempt that is bred among those valiant citizens of Pakistan who believe in retaining the power of the question.
The genius of ‘plausible accusability’ can only be appreciated to the fullest in an environment of a lack of accountability, where people get killed and then that’s it. They’re dead. The killers are free. And we all forget that anything happened.
In an environment of plausible accusability, we have a discourse in which the accused are the victims of being accused, and the people murdered, their mourning families, and their admirers and loved ones are the accusers.
States are not moral organisms. They aren’t supposed to “feel”. They are by very definition, brutal. Often, they are killing machines. This is as true of America, as it is of India, as it is of Pakistan.
Those people that decide to declare hostile intent toward a state enter the equivalent of a state of war. Do any states manage such scenarios with any degree of poise or grace? I can’t think of any state that garlands and embraces those that declare hostile intent against it. Most states respond to such stimuli with violence.
However the principal informant of how a state maintains its ability to coercively establish its writ, or its version of nationhood, is not the violence it can inflict upon its enemies but the legitimacy that is afforded to its violence. This is why the Pakistan Army awaited the appropriate public mood before launching operations in Swat, and it is why Operation Zarb-e-Azb was triggered by a frail political rhetoric and a brazen attack on an airport. States can and do exercise violence. All the time.
All of the Pakistani state’s paranoia about the existential latent hostility to it may be well-founded, but if the murder of a harmless and benign forty-year-old woman named Sabeen Mahmud allows us to plausibly accuse the Pakistani state of complicity in the act, then serious questions arise.
How deep is the crisis of legitimacy that the people charged with protecting people like Sabeen Mahmud are the ones being accused of silencing her?
Why are ‘enemy intelligence agencies’ able to so successfully penetrate our national discourse to paint our national institutions so negatively?
How can targeted killings and assassinations continue to take place in Karachi whilst an operation to clean the city up continues?
How can terrorist-sympathisers on both the Pakistani-left and the Pakistani-right continue to outwit and outmanoeuvre the Pakistani state?
The plausible accusability of Baloch terrorists or criminal elements of the MQM, or TTP and Al-Qaeda terrorists is not only understandable, it actually makes all the sense in the world. Quite simply put, it is only natural for us to consider these groups in a list of those that we would suspect of the murder of an activist like Sabeen Mahmud.
But the plausible accusability of state agencies is not congruent with the nature and the role of the state. The key question is how and why so many minds have raced so quickly to the judgement that somehow, someone, somewhere in the employ of Pakistani taxpayers thought it was okay to green light a murder most foul.
Could this be a grand conspiracy against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor? Sure. Anything is possible. The problem is, in a paradigm of plausible accusability, anything really is possible.
There is no possible scenario in which the plausible accusability of the Pakistani state is good for Pakistan. For those that believe in the power of the question, the plausible accusability of the state means that Pakistani citizens are sitting ducks for anyone that wishes to silence those citizens. This undermines many things, including our constitution, our aspirations, the dreams and visions of Iqbal and Quaid e Azam. Perhaps most of all however, this undermines the very state agencies in question.
The best and most potent intelligence agencies in the world afford their citizens the freedom to ask stupid questions. Pakistanis should be able to stand proudly on the shoulders of the power of the question. Until we can, the Pakistani state will not gain the legitimacy it needs to establish its version of nationhood – whatever that version may be. Finding and punishing Sabeen Mahmud’s killers may be a vital first step in resolving this most delicate of paradoxes.