The following article originally appeared in Pakistan Today. It references the July 28, 2010, crash of Airblue Flight 202 in the Margalla Hills north of Islamabad, Pakistan—the deadliest air accident in Pakistan's history, the crash killed all 146 passengers and six crew aboard—and an attack at PNS Mehran, the headquarters of the Pakistan Navy's Naval Air Arm in Karachi, Sindh, on May 22, 2011, which killed 18 military personal and wounded 16.
Recently, the defense minister of Pakistan gave the statement, reported in the papers, that the cause for the Air Blue crash was known to the government but the reasons could not be shared with the public. He is also reported to have said that there was information about what happened at the PNS Mehran that could not be shared with the public. In fact, it seems that the ministry has also told the relevant committee of the National Assembly that they currently cannot share the reports with them. So much for the power of the elected representatives who are supposed to be the fount of power for our democratic and state set up.
Usually, the government does not even go this far in "sharing" information with the people. Most of the time, in the past, they have either stayed mum about things, not even acknowledged them, or have chosen to lie to the people of Pakistan.
In this atmosphere is it any surprise that people will generate all sorts of hypotheses to explain what they see around them or try to connect bits and pieces of information that they might have with assumptions and hypotheses? These are usually then termed as conspiracy theories—and then Pakistanis are called prone to conspiracy theories.
What should we assume about the Air Blue crash? Could it have something to do with the war on terror? Isn't that the cause, or effect, of a lot of what is happening in Pakistan? And whether it was one side or another, and one reason or another, it is likely a lot of Pakistanis paid the price while we do not even know how this was related to the war on terror. And if it was related to the war, was there U.S. involvement in it or not? Would it be surprising to assume that? Is the U.S. not involved, in one way or another, in the war on terror? But does this constitute a "conspiracy theory?"
When, post-9/11, journalists had started saying that the U.S. was using one of the air bases in Pakistan, it was either denied or not acknowledged. In fact, there were efforts to hide that information, to discredit reports about this and pressure was put on journalists not to publish such reports. These were termed conspiracies. And now we know Shamsi air base has been in use for a long time. When drone strikes started, again the same denials, repression, and talk of conspiracies. And journalists even lost their lives for having broken the story. And today we know that they were not only there, there might have been secret and/or tacit agreements that we still do not know about.
Truth does not matter. The Pakistani state, and this includes the army as well as the civilian setup, has continued to play games with the people of Pakistan and they are still doing that. They do not believe in transparency, they hide information, they lie, they use repression as well as tools such as dissimulation and spreading disinformation to manage things in perceived "national" interest. But most of the time "national" interest is just the interest of the generals in power, or the coalition in power, and/or sectional interest hiding behind the protection of "national" interest.
The case of the missing people is an excellent example of this. There have been hundreds of people who have been taken from various parts of the country in the last decade. And despite appeals to the judiciary, the practice, according to most human rights observers, still continues. Impartial bodies have said and judiciary has hinted repeatedly that government agencies are involved in this. Yet, we are still not able to get to the bottom of this or sort the mess or even get the "agencies" to stop the practice. And one general, in his biography, even bragged about how many people the agencies have handed over to the Americans.
It seems that the wildest of conspiracy theories of one time become facts at a later time. Given that the state of Pakistan, as a policy and as default, does not want to share information with the people (and the same is true of other governments) but in addition, and more importantly, we do not have strong institutions that force the government to be transparent, as some of the other countries have, and the state has an interest in keeping things this way, it is hard to see how conspiracy theories can go away. It is a coping mechanism that people have come up with.
Of course, given the diversity of views in our society, the "theories" that come out will reflect that diversity too. But that is just inevitable. If the state does not want to level with the people, the people, with the help of whatever facts and hypotheses they have, will come up with ways of explaining what is going on around them. A better way forward would be for the state and society to work together to strengthen institutions of information sharing and accountability/transparency: implementation of Article 19A, legislation on freedom of information and its implementation, strengthening role of parliament and various committees, protection for investigative work by journalists and civil society, and more effective/efficient judicial system.
Till that happens, it will be living with theories of all sorts till one of them, or even a stranger version, turns out to be fact.