Conspiracy is a national sport in Pakistan. Nearly every Pakistan of prominence believes that they and their phone are monitored. Conspiracism has been a permanent staple in Pakistan’s political life. It is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the belief that major historical and political events are brought about as the result of a conspiracy between interested parties, or are manipulated by or on behalf of an unknown group of influential people; belief in or advocacy of conspiracy theories.” Scholars describe a conspiracy theory as “a proposed plot by powerful people or organisations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal.” Both definitions can be seen at work in Pakistan as the dominant mode for explaining the country’s state of affairs.
Pakistani are fed this narrative that the county is under threat from foreign forces. They are fed with the notion that it is only the preponderant security apparatus that can protect the country from disintegration and that civilian cannot understand this threat. It even goes so far as to claim that some in the civilian leadership are to be blamed for collusion with the state’s enemy. All the failures ranging from fragile economy, energy crisis, terrorism, sectarian violence to natural disaster are considered plans hatched by the enemy.
Social scientists point out that for believers, the fact that “one massive, sinister conspiracy could be successfully executed in near-perfect secrecy suggests that many such plots are possible.” If foreign powers or secretive elites pulled the strings in depriving Pakistan of Kashmir or taking East Pakistan away, they must be the reason for widespread corruption, domestic terrorist attacks, falling exports, water or electricity shortages and even the failure of a Pakistani team in an international sports competition.
Scholars who have studied the reasons for a society’s propensity to conspiracism point out that they are often rooted in a desire to explain away hardship. According to Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University, “Terrible events produce outrage, and when people are outraged, they are all the more likely to seek causes that justify their emotional states, and also to attribute those events to intentional action. The desire to find an easy scapegoat for problems that are often complex, involve randomness and would otherwise require difficult choices is a hallmark of conspiracy theories.”
In Pakistan’s case, conspiracies offer simple explanations and relief to an otherwise hapless populace, confirming their existing biases.
In a state like Pakistan which has endured martial laws for 33 years and indirect rule by the security apparatus at other times, the possibility of an open society often seems remote. In such a closed society, the truth is hidden and is replaced with conspiracy theories. And thus, the state and its institutions are relying on conspiracy theories to influence the minds of the masses. The masses, for their part, arrive at a stage where they trust more in conspiracy theories than on what is actually verifiable truth.
Meanwhile, the outside view is labeled as part of conspiracies of the unbeliever. Whether it is a report on education health, human rights or gender issues in Pakistan, these all reports are labeled as a conspiracy meant to tarnish the image of Pakistan. If a report shows low score of Pakistan in any area, the report is declared a conspiracy. No heed is paid to poor and low indicators in areas education, health, infrastructure, human rights and gender equality.
Before the inception of Pakistan, everyone who criticised Muslim League’s project was labeled as a Hindu agent. Bacha Khan, Abdul Kalam Azad and other prominent Muslim at the time were labeled Hindu agents, as they were against the scheme of a separate land on communal grounds. People were fed fatwas to the effect that whoever did not vote for Muslim League were heretic and non-Muslim
Today, that unfortunate mindset continues: the rise of PTM is labeled a conspiracy hatched by India and Afghanistan. Yet PTM itself argues that it is a response to the experience of marginalisation and brutalisation amongst Pakhtun. Thousands of Pakhtuns have been killed in war and thousands more have been injured. And then there are hundreds of thousands of Pakhtuns who are displaced internally and thousands who migrated to other countries due to war, violence and state brutality. To silence PTM as a voice, through the use of violence, simply will not work any more. The realisation is growing across various segments of Pakistani society that ill-framed internal and external policy choices are what got us to where we are, not merely external conspiracies.
It is time Pakistan revisited it ill-framed policies – and instead of laying blame on others for it problems, it should make policy which may lead to create a democratic, inclusive and peaceful country.