Last we checked, Pakistan was still a democracy
The Asma Jahangir conference (AJC) held last week on Sunday did not reveal anything new. Some of the country’s leading minds and personalities attended the conference to commemorate the services of Pakistan’s leading human rights activist Jahangir, who breathed her last in February 2018. Her courage to challenge the status quo won her laurels in and out of Pakistan. That she steadfastly fought the case of Pakistan without leaving the country makes her heroic mission even more commendable.
By its critics, the ruling PTI government has been accused of being ‘selected’ and for the last three years, the entire narrative of the opposition has been about this point. The Asma Jahangir Conference took this narrative to the next level.
The inaugural session was on “The Role of Judiciary in Protecting Human Rights and Strengthening Democracy.” Pakistan’s top legal minds were invited to talk. The panel of speakers boasted the Chief Justice of Pakistan and high court judges, diplomats etc. The sessdurdanaion’s tone was set by none other than the fiery Ali Ahmed Kurd, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and a leading figure in the 2007 lawyers’ movement against military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. In fact, his entire speech was a charge sheet against the judiciary. The gist of it was that the judiciary in Pakistan was ‘compromised’ putting Pakistan lowest in the world justice rule of law ranking. In a counter speech, the Chief Justice of Pakistan denied the allegations and asserted that no power on earth could pressurize the higher courts to tow a specific line.
But the incident that really stole the spotlight was the government’s decision to disconnect Internet facilities so ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech on the second day of the conference could not be aired. This move did far more damage to the government than to the conference or Sharif. The conference was telecast the world over, and because it was funded from outside of Pakistan as well, people and institutions who had stakes in it were watching it closely. Foreign dignitaries, especially Androulla Kaminara, ambassador of the European Union to Pakistan, had been part of the audience.
Dissent is the nemesis of dictators, not of elected prime ministers. Today, a growing intolerance exhibited by the government toward dissent makes it appear politically immature and insecure.
After having been warned multiple times of getting delisted from the GSP-Plus status on the issue of human rights, the decision to deny a former prime minister a right to voice possible dissent, was anything but a rational decision.
Pakistani politicians in exile have always talked to the media and international audiences-- Benazir did, Altaf Hussain did, even Nawaz Sharif did, while conducting his party from Saudi Arabia where he was exiled after the 1998 military coup. The argument that a political ‘absconder’ should not be allowed an audience suppresses freedom of expression and dissent. One might recall that Altaf Hussain of the MQM had multiple charges against him from homicide to inciting violence against the state, but his notoriously long speeches would be telecast without interruption. But a former prime minister who has been sent abroad with the consent of the government is barred from expressing his opinion.
Dissent is the nemesis of dictators, not of elected prime ministers. Today, a growing intolerance exhibited by the government toward dissent makes it appear politically immature and insecure. Absurdly, by blocking Internet services during Sharif’s speech, the administration could only block his picture and not his voice, which nevertheless made its way to the audience.
It is not only Sharif who is barred from speaking. Students, activist and journalist voices too are often stifled, and barred from taking a position against policies or institutions.
PM Imran Khan never tires of talking against dynastic politics, but he has shown a very little appetite for the natural sources of leaders’ development- student unions and local body elections. If anyone proved the point being made loudly during the Asma Jahangir Conference-- an event put together to reflect on the state of human rights in the country-- it was the government of Pakistan.
- Durdana Najam is an oped writer based in Lahore. She writes on security and policy issues.