Belatedly updating my blog with the article I wrote for The News on Sunday, June 15, 2014, as part of a Special Report on conspiracy theories. Other reports in that issue were Dr M. Taqi’s The truth behind conspiracy theories in Pakistan, an interview of Nadeem Farooq Paracha and more. Lots has happened since then, but this remains relevant.
If India and Pakistan develop a good relationship, how will the security establishment justify its existence?
“Another attack near Karachi Airport… I can’t help but wonder that this is happening close to Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India and the hope for progress in peace between India and Pakistan,” commented a friend. “I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I wonder why is it that whenever peace efforts start gaining momentum something like this happens.”
My friend is not the only one to wonder about such things.
When terrorists attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008, the late advocate and former law minister and former senator Iqbal Haider, speaking at a demonstration in Karachi in solidarity against the attacks, pointed out that the timing was no coincidence.
The attacks, he observed, came four days after President Asif Ali Zardari’s address to the Hindustan Times Conclave, at which he made the surprise statement that Pakistan would follow a no-first use nuclear policy. He made the mistake of not consulting the military before making this momentous public statement. Those involved, said Haider, moved earlier than originally planned in order to teach the elected civilian government a lesson.
Conspiracy theories? Perhaps. But not too far-fetched in a country where such interventions are known to have taken place, even if not always proved. The security establishment here has long ruled the roost either directly or behind the scenes. In the process, it has kept a tight control over the foreign, economic and defence policies.
Benazir Bhutto had to agree to stay away from these three areas after she was elected as Prime Minister in 1988, causing a two-week delay in her oath-taking ceremony. She was only allowed to form government after she had acquiesced.
In the slow, land-mined road to democracy since then, many elected representatives have turned out to be corrupt, weak and incompetent. But the gradual progress, despite many setbacks – including another decade of military rule under Musharraf — has put Pakistan on the path to a democratic political process. This process got a boost when an elected government in Pakistan handed over power to the next elected government in 2013 – for the first time in the country’s history.
No wonder those the Dirty Tricks Brigade (a term I coined during the election campaign of 2008)– sometimes referred to as the “Deep State” or “Angels” — have stepped up their game. They see the narrative slipping away. A culture of greater questioning is taking root, enabled by several factors, starting with cell phone usage becoming more popular in the late 1990s. The rise in private television channels in 2002 was followed by the real boost – the marriage of the Internet with smart phone technology – microphones and cameras – along with social media platforms like blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
Of course all those tools available to citizen journalists and young activists challenging the old narratives are also available to the Dirty Tricks Brigade.
Remember the rumours about Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s supposed ‘affair’ with Hina Rabbani Khar when she was Foreign Minister? The report originated from Blitz Weekly, a tabloid news portal registered in Bangladesh. It cited “western intelligence agencies” as the source of fabricated details about messages exchanged, and Khar’s plan to divorce her husband and marry Bilawal, ten years her junior, in Switzerland.
The report came out shortly after Khar had facilitated an investigation by the United Nations’ Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, looking into thousands of missing people detained by the security forces, particularly in Balochistan. The security establishment was obviously not happy with this investigation.
The report was later removed from the Blitz Weekly website. But by then its contents had been shared on the social media as well as mainstream media – particularly in Pakistan and in India. Khar was forced to issue a denial.
According to reliable sources, those behind the report have registered domains in friendly countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, from where disinformation can be disseminated without arousing suspicion. Coming from Bangladesh gave the report a veneer of authenticity. After all, why would a Bangladeshi portal defame Pakistani politicians?
Then you have other ‘coincidences’. Like Zaid Hamid having to go underground after being accused of ‘blasphemy’ – and re-surfacing suddenly some time later with a brand new line that furthers the old security paradigm, particularly against India. A quid pro quo for protection from the right quarters? Why else would the Pakistani authorities have blocked the Facebook page of Zaid Hamid Exposition?
Conspiracy theories crop up when militants attack someone like Malala Yusufzai, or journalists like Raza Rumi and Hamid Mir, who survive the attack. Via sms messages, blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook statuses they develop a false narrative about the attacks having been engineered by the victims themselves in order to gain sympathy, regardless of the pain and suffering caused.
There are some people who do believe in such conspiracy theories. But an atmosphere is deliberately created giving the impression that more people believe them than is actually the case.
The Dirty Tricks Brigade has many resources at its disposal, as well as many people who are either paid or subscribe to its ideology, including people in various political parties and organisations. On the social media, they “troll” using anonymous accounts from which they run hundreds of fake identities. One twitter account that kept tagging me claimed to be someone called Shazia, a Muslim woman from Hyderabad, Deccan. ‘She’ claimed to be ‘secular’ but her tweets revealed a different story. When a friend checked out the IP address it turned out ‘she’ was tweeting from Rawalpindi.
More recently, following Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India, suddenly reports surfaced, citing anonymous sources, that he was “not happy” and had felt somehow “shortchanged” by his Indian counterpart. The media started reporting this as fact. The narrative was countered when Sharif sent a letter of appreciation to Modi, saying how “satisfied” he was with their “meaningful exchange”.
“It is the millions living in poverty in both countries who deserve our foremost attention,” Sharif rightly sad. “I firmly believe that in our concerted efforts lies the welfare and prosperity of our two nations.”
But if there are concerted efforts for peace and mutual welfare, if India and Pakistan develop a good relationship, how will the security establishment justify its existence? And so the conspiracy theories and counter-narratives continue.