By Safiya Aftab
Rule by Fear: Eight Theses on Authoritarianism in Pakistan is a slim volume by Ammar Ali Jan that encapsulates the key features of Pakistan’s current political and economic environment with brevity and in an engaging style.
This, for the most part, is one of the positive elements of the book. A small minority of readers may, however, have been happier with a more detailed assessment of the eight theses presented here — perhaps with more historical context and a more comprehensive application of Marxist tools of analysis, given that Jan has impeccable academic credentials and is a self-described Marxist historian. Maybe that’s a project for the future. Having read the book at a time of upheaval and political unrest, and amidst yet another regime change, one does feel that an update will be welcome in the short to medium term.
As the title states, the book describes eight theses that illustrate how authoritarianism manifests in Pakistan. These range from the creation of a security state as exemplified in the “permanent state of emergency”, to the manipulation of elected governments through “controlled democracy”, fanning waves of intolerance and extremism through “moral panic” and the misuse of laws on sedition, amongst others.
As Jan sees it, each of the eight levers are attempts to undermine the will of the people and ensure that they do not organise to demand their rights.
Each chapter of the book covers one manifestation of authoritarianism as defined by the author and follows a set structure. There is a historical overview — in some instances beginning from the colonial era — consisting of key events which illustrate the issue. This overview then continues to the present day with the (now previous) government of PTI coming in for particular scrutiny. Each chapter then ends with the statement of the key thesis.
The first thesis, for example, which is concerned with the so-called permanent state of emergency, is laid out as follows: “As an inheritor of the colonial legacy, Pakistan is governed through a permanent state of emergency, where the whims of the ruling classes supersede adherence to the law…” The statement of the thesis ends with: “This violent and arbitrary system is overseen and managed by the military leadership, the status quo’s most powerful and loyal guardian.”
Jan, in short, pulls no punches. All eight essays are similarly unfettered, and the language is direct and hard-hitting. When describing Pakistan’s involvement with imperialist wars in the region, he quotes dialogue from the Hollywood film Charlie Wilson’s War and emphasises that no one “gave a s*** about Pakistan (or Afghanistan) once the Soviets had left.”
When talking about the National Accountability Bureau in the chapter on controlled democracy, the author describes it as “an instrument for political blackmail of politicians exerted by the deep state…” A chapter on (patently false) allegations of treason is titled ‘We the Seditious People’, while a section on the use of the blasphemy law in the chapter on moral panic is called ‘A Blasphemous People’.
But while his language is direct and his style simple and approachable, the author provides much food for thought in this brief treatise. When discussing the first thesis, he propounds the idea that far from being a theocracy — which is how Pakistan’s liberals sometimes characterise the country — Pakistan is actually a state where “nothing is sacred, other than raw power.”
In essence, the subversion of a Constitution that espouses the sovereignty of Allah demonstrates that the State of Pakistan is, in fact, profane, and upholds the philosophy of ‘might is right’. When talking about controlled democracy, Jan describes the process through which the establishment retains control, even during the rule of civilian dispensations — essentially by identifying suitable leaders and then ensuring their entry into the power corridors.
According to the author, these “leaders” can never be grassroots activists, and this is why the people of Pakistan can barely identify half of the prime ministers who have been in power over the past 74 years.
This is a provocative assertion. While there is no denying the grooming of potential leaders, there is more than one interesting example of how the protégés came into their own once placed in office and decided to assert their power, however limited. In this case, Jan does a disservice to the likes of Mohammad Khan Junejo, Nawaz Sharif, and even — dare one say it — the recently ousted Imran Khan.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters are those where the author illustrates his point with examples of his own involvement in left-wing politics, and the trials and tribulations he and his comrades have faced.
Some of these are simply absurd, as in the story of how intelligence officers — who had apparently been briefed on how Jan was an agent of the Afghan intelligence agency National Directorate of Security (NDS) — saw Jan’s American wife and feared that there may be a greater global conspiracy afoot.
The author’s wife, Tabitha Spence, was later featured on social media as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and an example of how a foreign government was supporting the left-wing student movement in Pakistan. The leaps of imagination that this requires are obviously staggering and would be funny if they were not so damaging.
Other anecdotes are unsettling; for instance, the account of how an intelligence officer told Jan that he was in danger of being killed and should leave the country while he could. Not only that, but the officer apparently confessed that he, too, had plans to migrate soon — he had, in effect, given up on the State he was supposedly protecting.
Rule by Fear is an interesting read and forces the reader to really think about the relationship between the Pakistani state and its citizens. But Jan’s conclusion is disheartening for those who advocate a continuous struggle for reform within existing structures.
He seems to believe that a more radical approach is needed to challenge the status quo. While his concerns are appreciable, history shows that revolutions — to paraphrase Irish playwright Bernard Shaw — simply shift the burden of tyranny to another shoulder.
This book review was first published in Dawn’s EOS magazine
The reviewer is a researcher and policy analyst.