Famous Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 19th-century Russia and the Czech-born French writer Milan Kundera’s Czechoslovakia of his early youth both faced political turmoil and an atmosphere of social suffocation. The same is the case with modern-day Pakistan, where unfortunately the specters of dictatorship and totalitarianism are holding a firm grip on the political and social fabric of the country. In a country where dissenting from traditions and from self-created ethical and moral doctrines, and asking questions on certain political and social beliefs, can land you in the trouble and sometimes even put your life at risk, it is not easy to dissent and avoid paying a price for this “crime.”

Even an ordinary journalist can see how evading subtle restrictions can land him in the deepest of trouble as far as a career and other perks are concerned. So imagine what cost a well-known elected leader has to pay for saying no to the invisible rule of the deep state. The same is the case with the progressive voices who challenge the rotten social narratives of old traditions, such as raising their voices against religious extremism or marginalization of minorities, or advocating women’s rights.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s mainstream media are filled with pro-establishment and pro-status-quo voices who continue to spread propaganda for the invisible forces and for the benefit of the elite that controls the social narratives along with the deep state. So in a state where such voices are given a free hand to give a spin to every event and narrative in favor of the powers that be and their allies, anyone challenging the status quo finds himself at the wrong end. While journalism is hostage largely to the mouthpieces of state propaganda and literature is hijacked by the right-wing pro-status-quo writers, the intellectual growth of Pakistani society is stalled, and as a result not only is the state propaganda finding acceptance by the larger segment of society, but minds are manipulated to side with the narratives of the state.

This has turned the whole society into a cage where anyone who dares to try to break this inertia is considered a traitor. Famous human-rights activists like the late Asma Jahangir and popularly elected leaders like Zulfikar Bhutto and Wali Khan were considered traitors by many. It has always been the progressive voices and dissenting leaders who paid the price for not accepting the narratives and doctrines imposed by the state.

It is evident that throughout the history of the country, dissenting journalists, human-rights activists and elected leaders were regularly humiliated and even killed, while the majority of the population under the influence of strong propaganda has been unable to see that it is the state within a state that has been responsible for destroying democratic norms and the ability to think critically. So one by one, every voice that challenges the hegemony of the status quo is smeared as a traitor or corrupt, and every now and then a new puppet is introduced as a revolutionary leader or a prominent journalist or literary figure by the deep state to keep its hegemony intact.

From 2014 when the military establishment sponsored a sit-in by Imran Khan to weaken the government of then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif to the sit-in of the religious extremist outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan at Faizabad in 2017, and from the famous Dawn leaks to the toxic legacy of former chief justice Saqib Nisar, every move to discredit Sharif and other democratic leaders eventually sent the country toward an abyss where it was left with no option but to rely for its survival on the begging bowl and US and Saudi aid while in return helping them achieve their geopolitical interests in Afghanistan and Yemen.

The blatant rigging of last year’s elections, the curbs on the press and using state institutions such as accountability courts to convict the popular leaders of the country – everything has contributed to the economic turmoil and global isolation of Pakistan. The religious card played against Sharif and his party not only weakened his electoral constituency but also increased religious extremism at an alarming rate.

When all this was not enough to break the defiance of Sharif – which for many analysts and political pundits was a surprising factor – he was put behind bars, and now he is seriously ill. Even in this condition the thrice-elected former prime minister is being humiliated and being asked to present a surety bond of 7.5 billion rupees (US$48 million) to be allowed to go abroad and get life-saving medical treatment.

It actually is a joke, as from the first prime minister of the country, Liaquat Ali Khan, to the last undisputed elected prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, every one either was eliminated or was not able to complete his term or was put behind bars on imaginary corruption charges that never were proved. In contrast, you will never find a single dictator who abrogated the Pakistani constitution held accountable.

In the end, it only requires common sense to understand that the process of undermining popular leaders, which started from the era of Ayub Khan when Fatima Jinnah was termed a traitor, to the engineered downfall of Sharif, it not only weakened democracy and dissenting leadership but halted the financial, intellectual and social growth of the country, and as a result we have visionless people sitting in the big chairs and making the decisions about the future of the country.

The problem remains that these people are incapable of realizing that by hijacking the democratic system, the press, literature and the social narratives they are only reproducing more unproductive and delusional minds like their own, and this will not take the country anywhere closer to the progressive and developed nations of the world. Seventy-two years of discrediting every dissenting voice and narrative are more than enough to realize that toppling and discrediting elected regimes and declaring dissenting voices traitors or using religious cards against them will only keep Pakistan a proxy for the global powers to fulfill their own vested interests.

The decision lies with the powers that be: Do they want Pakistan to be seen as a state with a begging bowl that is little more than a proxy for the global powers, or do they want to take a back seat and let the democratic and progressive voices lead the country toward a better future? Sooner or later, whether of their own will or in defeat, these forces will need to retreat. But the question remains: Will the damage be repairable by that time? There always is a cost to be paid for misadventures, as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in East Germany: “Life punishes those who come too late.”