New Prisons for Old

Posted by sepoy on April 14, 2008 · 7 mins read

There was a news item in a Lahore daily, a few days ago. In the Daily Waqt, the un-named reporter, sought to highlight destruction and disappearance of the Lal Qila dungeons in Lahore. These dungeons, the article stated, had housed political prisoners and criminals for centuries - since Lodhi to Akbar to Shah Jahan to the British and down, most recently to Zia ul Haq (who put them to good use in the mass arrests in '84-'85). It had some renown as a 'torture cell' and 'hanging depot' among the locals. Barring a few noted prisoners, these dungeons had remained shuttered and ignored during Pervez Musharraf's tenure and can now only be considered relics of the past. Will no one, wrote Daily Waqt, think of our Mughal history?

Since there has been no lack of prisoners - political or otherwise - in Pakistan during the last ten years, it is a good question: What did happen? Where are the political prisoners in Pakistan? The first response is surely: Vanished. The second response needs a broader view of what has happened in Pakistan. I would argue that the state of extra-constitutional constitutionality that has existed in the United States since early 2002 has had a frank implementation in Pakistan under Musharraf. There has been a "new" language of security and safety - subtly undercutting the language of rights and eschewing usual channels (legal or otherwise) - that the state claims supercedes all else. The dungeons under Lahore Fort may be an extreme case, but the "Prison" has had a long and noted history for those daring to speak up against tyranny. One need only think of a Faiz stewing in prison and writing letters and poems to see that discursive power. The state in Pakistan, following the United States, sought to declaim such memories for the current generations of Aitzaz Ahsans and Iftikhar Chaudhries.

I say post-2002 United States deliberately and precisely. The recent revelations of John Yoo's memos arguing suspension of Geneva Convention, authorizing torture, suspending Fourth Amendment for domestic military operations; the State's admission of wide snooping powers over US citizens; the gulag at Gitmo; the “state” media which unquestionably led us into the Iraq War; were all efforts that unfurled in early and mid 2002 and it was these practices that provided explicit and implicit templates to the likes of Pervez Musharraf.

It is perhaps the penultimate nail in irony's coffin that, in his address, Musharraf quoted Lincoln as his idealogue while contemplating Emergency. The ultimate nail being that Musharraf found an inspirational quote from Lincoln in none-other-than Richard M. Nixon's 1980 best-seller Leaders: Profiles and Reminiscences of Men Who Have Shaped the World - Musharraf's self-proclaimed favorite book of all times. But, that was all show and tell for the American audience. The real inspiration was George W. Bush's America not Lincoln's.

Just as the US declared a new category of "enemy-combatants" for prisoners taken during a war who are not prisoners of war and sought to incarcerate them on "non-US" US territory, Musharraf called into being a new category of "enemies of the State" - a designation for whoever sought to criticize or work for the removal of this dictator. The enemies of the State being simply, the "enemies" of Musharraf (A biological necessity since he embodied the country: “This country lives in my heart. This country lives in my blood. And it lives in my soul.”) And for these special category of prisoners, the prison cell couldn't be the prison which housed Gandhi, Nehru, Bhagat Singh and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The prison compound about which Faiz wrote: Sahn-e Zindan kay be-Watan Ashjar/Sar nigoun mahv hain bananay mein/Daman-e Asman pe Naksh-o Nigar.

That prison compound, Musharraf knew, would be used as a platform to build ever greater public support against his anarchy. Hence, his regime operated under the “Vanished” scenario wherein Military Intelligence simply erased a suspect from legal and geographical space. Such, though, couldn't be the fate of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry or Aitzaz Ahsan.

For our "new" political prisoners, the idea of House Arrest was enshrined as state practice. The houses were surrounded by military and police, the phones were audibly tapped and all ingress and egress rigidly controlled. In effect, the Pakistani state was able to create hundreds of miniature Guantanamo Bays wherein undesirables could be sequestered for the long dureé.

Sadly, Musharraf didn't count on the power of "new" technologies to influence mass politics. SMS/TXT messages, viral cell phone videos, compiled and transmitted from within the houses of the CJ or Asma Jahangir spread to possibly every cell phone in the country, onto youtube and across the diaspora. The state efforts to curtail these modern day chapatis also failed: the ban on cell phone had to be lifted for the sake of global capital; the ban on youtube and blogspot had to be lifted for creating even worse publicity.

The language of liberal democracy and republic which enshrines basic rights and protects minorities is the very language that Musharraf used in his destruction of Pakistan's Constitution. Similar is the case in India, where Dr. Binayak Sen continues to languish in prison for almost a year - claimed a terrorist by the same state that uses terror against its own people. In essence, a shared, global history of terror has been written around us, since 2002. It's public manifestations are policies that govern our lives here and else-where. The global politics of Washington and Islamabad are the politics of un-restrained freedom of action - in the name of security and security, alone. These global politics need our firmest critiques and sustained analysis. These dungeons need some sunlight.


Huma | April 14, 2008

Just to answer one of your questions, from what a former political prisoner in Zia's time recently told me, the new cells that were created in the Shahi Qila have been destroyed, and there is only one room left there, I think he said the outermost cell. Might need to reconfirm if all the old dungeons have been filled in too.

dacoit | April 14, 2008

Prescient and chilling. Domestic terror and surveillance as export ideology. Let freedom ring.

Sunday Reading for 2010 | December 26, 2010

[...] I realize that Indian democracy is having a worse 2010. The verdict against Dr. Binayak Sen handed down on Dec. 24th is shocking and harrowing in its language of order. This review of the verdict at Kafila will help you align yourself and you can also read my older post on this subject. [...]