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May 20, 2017

Politics of smear campaigns


May 20, 2017

On May 17, an advocate representing Mashal Khan’s father in the Supreme Court of Pakistan disclosed that the sisters of Mashal Khan had been facing difficulties in continuing their education. He also appealed to the court that the girls be transferred to educational institutions in Islamabad so they can continue their studies without being harassed.

The smear campaign against Mashal Khan and his family is being spearheaded by not only the local religious leaders but also by conservative journalists, right-wing anchors and ‘analysts’ on screen. One such media person has repeatedly cast doubts about Mashal Khan’s innocence and has raised apprehensions about the victim’s family. As a result of these allegations, the local mullahs had refused to lead Mashal’s funeral prayers. It now appears that his entire family is under threat and some progressive activists who have visited that area have confirmed to this writer that the situation is very tense and any untoward incident cannot be ruled out.

Almost at the same time another smear campaign has been launched on social media against the well-known scholar and teacher, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy. A couple of weeks ago, he and Dr A H Nayyar – another scholar and peace activist – were invited by the Islamabad Cultural Forum to deliver the Dr Eqbal Ahmed Memorial lecture on the topic of ‘Academia and Resistance’. Both spoke very well and their lectures were posted on social media too. The main thrust of their lecture was the increasing intolerance in society and how it can be resisted. Both lamented the relentless lethargy of the state institutions in taking preventive measures.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy was very candid in his indictment of university officials and teachers across Pakistan who perpetuate a narrow-minded self-righteousness among the youth. This was not the first time he has spoken about the falling standards of university education and the declining level of healthy debate and dialogue. He has long been an advocate of rationality and enlightenment in Pakistan. His writings have encouraged our youth to think and ask questions with confidence; and this confidence is an anathema to those who propagate unquestionable myths. Hence the smear campaign against him, calling for his and his like-mined thinkers’ banishment from society.

Not long ago, we witnessed a similar campaign in Urdu print media against Dr Mubarak Ali – perhaps the only historian in Pakistan who has authored over 100 books on different aspects of history. From historiography to the critique of history, he has guided the youth and led with the torch of objective thinking in Pakistan. Just like Syed Sibte Hasan and Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, Dr Ali has written on history in an easy-to-understand style. He has taught us to question and analyse the official version of history. Dr Ali’s contribution to history writing in Pakistan has angered those who still think that General Zia was the saviour of Pakistan.

Such smear campaigns are nothing new. In the seven decades of Pakistan’s existence, each decade has seen smear campaigns against those who had the temerity to challenge the state-approved narrative. During the first years of Pakistan, the target of such campaigns were the stalwarts of the freedom movement such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Maulvi Fazlul Haq and Khawaja Nazimuddin. Even poets and writers such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer and Hasan Abidi were not spared. So were student activists, for example Dr Adeeb Rizvi, Dr Haroon Ahmed and Dr Mohammad Sarwar.

General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship launched smear campaigns against leaders such as Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy and Fatima Jinnah – both personalities of outstanding merit and courage. During the 1960s, a loyal group of writers, poets, historians, and ‘intellectuals’ was nurtured at the state expense so that an official version of history and literature could be produced and disseminated. Those who sided with the government were amply rewarded and those who resisted became targets of humiliation and were dubbed as traitors. That was the period when seeds of intolerance and de-politicisation were sowed in the land.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure saw smear campaigns against nationalist and progressive leaders such as Abdul Wali Khan, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo and others belonging to the only national-level progressive party – the National Awami Party. Traitor production was at its height during Bhutto’s over five-year rule. General Zia continued the same path but targeted Bhutto and his party in the smear campaign that lasted throughout the eighties and was taken over by Nawaz Sharif in the 1990s. General Musharraf did the same with his smear campaigns against Nawaz and his family.

But now the most dangerous element of such campaigns is that the seven decades of state-led smear has trickled down to every campus and street. Be it Chitral, Mardan or Mansehra, vigilantes are ready to pounce on you if you differ with the dominant intellectual, political, religious or social narrative. This is politics of smear at its worst because that’s how social space is being usurped and encroached upon by the forces of extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism.

The new narrative Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif talks about is almost immediately killed by ministers and officials sitting in the education, interior and religious ministries. It is scholars like Dr Hoodbhoy, Dr Nayyar and Dr Mubarak Ali who can give us a new narrative, but their voices are being suppressed under the cacophony of cackles.


The writer holds a PhD from the
University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]



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