Information and free societies

  • And people’s freedoms

Society throws all sorts of information at its people. There should be no attempt to control most of this because it constitutes the variety of information available in a free society. An absence indicates a controlled society, one in which Big Brother is watching, censuring, and controlling, a scenario that may be familiar to those of us who are not being allowed to obtain some newspapers. Another example is China where even now the government regulates any information to do with the ‘Cultural Revolution.’

It should be up to the people of every society to accept or discard this or that piece of information as their judgement tells them.

Yet some information can be corrected, and some should outright not be obtained.

Right here in Pakistani, misinformation can be found in history textbooks, where invaders are subjectively labelled as heroes or martyrs.

In his essay ‘Past, Present, Myths and Lies’, Mubarak Ali observes that the reason behind invasions is invariably lust, or greed for wealth or land. This is as the matter should be approached when it is taught. From Muhammad bin Qasim to the British, lust or greed for wealth and land was the reason behind their invasion of the subcontinent. Yet, Ali says “we recognise Muhammad Bin Qasim as a hero because Sindh was converted to Islam” as a result of his appearance on the scene. “Charles Napier also invaded Sindh in 1843 and modernised it but his status remains that of an invader and he did not replace Muhammad Bin Qasim as a hero” because we did not all convert to Christianity as a result of Napier’s invasion. Had we done so, the labels would have been reversed. Right?

Subjectivity is grossly misleading and damaging. In the same manner as the example above, various figures and institutions who interfere in the running of the country are hailed as heroes, because ‘no one else is doing what they’re doing, and whatever they’re doing needed to be done’. One hears this time and again. The fact remains that what they do is wrong because they are doing. That makes it unconstitutional and therefore illegal. To this situation Mubarak Ali’s other question applies when he asks “What gives an invader the right to demand land that legally belongs to someone (else)?” Changed to: What gives a person who ‘invades’ someone else’s job the right to do so? It is an important question.

Governments in this country have their hands tied with regards to laws that pander to discriminatory views, injustice and inequality among the population

You cannot shove the constitution aside when it does not suit you and demand its application when it does.

There is yet another category of information, and this one can and ought to be regulated at the point where questions are asked to obtain it. I refer to the questions regarding caste on property forms, and the questions regarding religion on passport forms in Pakistan.

This might appear to be a small detail, but many small details are potent and lead to larger issues.

Questions concerning race for example are asked on travel forms also in other countries, and they are as unnecessary and irrelevant. They supposedly constitute statistical data but there are so many mixed race marriages today that under what category exactly would a child of Asian and European parents fit for instance? And what useful information (seeing that it is just a box that is ticked and no detail) does that give? It is the same with questions regarding caste in Pakistan, where caste – although it is important to segments of society and those segments should be free to ask such questions personally – on the government level has no relevance, except in the discriminatory attitudes it leads to.

And so it is with question regarding religion on passport forms. All these questions deserve to be shelved and should be.

Governments in this country have their hands tied with regards to laws that pander to discriminatory views, injustice and inequality among the population. To fix those laws would take diplomacy, intelligence and a great deal of courage, not something many of our governments have been known for. The least they can do therefore is remove questions relating to those subjects. After all, there is what Jinnah in support, that: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” But with religion and the law in this country, one ignores what one wishes to ignore.

Our new PM has in the past declared his intention to be among those who mean to allow certain crucially flawed laws to remain. His saying so may have been another example of his volatile speeches and actions prior to the elections, or it may have been an attempt to smooth some hackles for the moment. We don’t know. If it was the latter, one might still hope.

All one can say for certain is that the only reason the State would demand to know a person’s religion on a passport form is if its intentions are not benign, or if it is pandering to the demands of someone with malignant intentions.