The Marginalisation Of Dissent In Pakistan

The Marginalisation Of Dissent In Pakistan
“The loyalty of academic gang members to each other and to the code of the gang is easily as fierce as that of street gangs.”

– Thomas J. Scheff

The disciplinary tradition of Pakistani academia begins and ends with a security-centric neorealist paradigm of looking at both international and domestic politics; sovereignty appears to be the sole official lens through which to respond, and preserving it becomes the primary concern. This is true for most of the Third World states, and especially for the recently decolonised South Asia as Kanti Bajpai argues. Following independence, these postcolonial states swiftly conformed to the realist conceptions of state survival, self-interest, sovereignty and security. The conformity of these states to privilege realist discourses as political, strategic and socio-economic norms, as Navnita Chadha Behera argues, ‘fitted admirably with powerful indigenous impulses for maintaining national security, independence and frontiers.’ 

Pakistan, similarly, was confronted with multiple security, political and socio-economic challenges after independence. Beginning with the asymmetrical distribution of resources during the partition, Pakistan's policy preferences were (are), by and large, security-centric because of the constant threat to the very existence of the state by an influential counterpart, India. At the same time, the state was dominated by the military-bureaucratic oligarchy in the formative years but this equation took a turn after Ayub Khan’s coup d’état in 1958 and the military establishment emerged to be the dominant partner. The successive military dictatorships further strengthened the military’s position and confined Pakistan, as Ahmed Waqas Waheed argues, to a ‘security-centered understanding of sovereignty,’ a trend that still persists. The domestic instability added fuel to the fire and pushed the state to be in a permanent state of paranoia of seeing social and political resistance as foreign conspiracies. 

Dissent, therefore, is also seen through the narrow prism of security. It is manipulated to delegitimise alternative and interdisciplinary debates. Clearly, the securitisation of academic discourses and disciplines comes from a broader history of Pakistan’s dependence on security-centric neorealism, to which academics subscribed without any sort of problematisation. 

In today’s Pakistani academia, the situation is more problematic with ex-state officials, incumbent on important positions at universities and think tanks that assume ‘the responsibilities of being gate-keepers of a community of knowledge producers.’ The top positions are mostly, if not entirely, occupied by either former army officers or ex-bureaucrats whose understanding of International Relations and Politics research revolves around either the Kashmir conflict or Indian infiltration into Pakistan.

For instance, influential think tanks such as the Institute of Regional Studies (IRS), Islamabad Policy and Research Institute (IPRI), Institute of Strategic Studies, Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) and Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, to name a few, are run by incumbent or ex-state officials while others such as Center for Global and Strategic Studies (CGSS), National Defense University’s think tank ISSRA and several others are run by ex-military officials. 


In today’s Pakistani academia, the situation is more problematic with ex-state officials, incumbent on important positions at universities and think tanks that assume ‘the responsibilities of being gate-keepers of a community of knowledge producers.’



The state of universities is no different in Islamabad where most of the social sciences research institutes are headed by retired military officials. Their undue obsession with the Kashmir conflict and now Afghanistan, for example, crudes out the alternative avenues of exploring International Relations and confines the discipline within hardcore conflict and security ambits. While of course, the alternative knowledge is being (re)produced, it has been pushed to the margins by the dominant theories and hegemonic ideas of International Relations in Pakistan and the world over. It is, by far, the most severe impact of neorealism’s stranglehold that it makes other efforts invisible. The academic gangs, as illustrated by Thomas Scheff, peripheralize and displace alternative ideas and interdisciplinary debates as insignificant, utopian or disloyal to the idea of nationhood and state sovereignty.

Therefore, any perspective outside the knowledge and interest of conventional disciplinary traditions is met with hostility in the Pakistani social sciences academy, especially International Relations and other relevant disciplines, because of the discipline’s uncritical securitisation. From universities to research think-tanks, the academic disciplinary gangs reciprocally discipline the thoughts of students and researchers in ways that constrain inter-disciplinary, innovative and aesthetic endeavours to understand the processes of international and national politics, and therefore, to address some of the most pressing political challenges of our day. For instance, there are scholarly inquiries into the role of emotions in decision-making and politics, the potential of political and fictional discourses on ‘Islamic Terrorism’ in perpetuating Islamophobia across the globe, the prospect of aesthetics to enable efforts for peace-building and the importance of media in constructing public opinions for political gains much like what the American media and the Bush administration did to legitimise the Iraqi invasion or the Western media’s decontextualised misrepresentation of the Palestinian resistance.   

However, for there to be inclusive disciplinary growth, the path forward would have to go beyond just encouraging more interdisciplinary work, which frequently entails 'importing' concepts from other disciplines into established frameworks of International Relations. It has to go beyond critiquing the narrow and problematic nature of conventional disciplinary traditions. The most imaginative response to the current political crisis may probably lay in initiatives to convey alternative narratives about the international, unencumbered by the limits of dominant discourses. As Darby asserts, ‘to decolonise IR is to deschool oneself from the discipline in its current dominant manifestations.’ The key is to recognise that the international is not a separate sphere from the rest of the social and political world, as Roland Bleiker argues. It has to incorporate insights from fields as diverse as psychology, neuroscience, literature, theatrics, biology and art for multiple parallel perspectives and policy solutions. Lastly, it has to do away with the disciplinary gangs whose primary concern is to show loyalty to the gang and its code of conduct for their professional progression.