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December 16, 2019

Bilawal at his best

Opinion

December 16, 2019

There are not many institutes of higher education (IHEs) in Pakistan, especially in Islamabad, where you can talk about human rights, enforced disappearances, manipulated elections, and question the state narrative of controlled truths and outright lies.

Habib University in Karachi and LUMS in Lahore have tried a couple of times to encourage and present alternative stories but the notorious ‘unknown’ forces have intruded, and at times physically intervened to stop any discussion that raises a voice against the approved version of current affairs or even of history.

Among the IHEs in Pakistan, Szabist has emerged as a beacon of new hope where you can hear multiple voices, share diverse opinions, and raise concerns at the domination of one state narrative that tries to stifle all other dissenting explanations behind the miseries of this country.

The main campus of Szabist in Karachi has hosted numerous conferences and seminars where speakers such as Dr Mubarak Ali of history, Dr Tauseef Khan of mass communication, Dr Riaz Shaikh of social sciences, Dr Jaffar Ahmed of political science, Ghazi Salahuddin and Mazhar Abbas of journalism, and many others have expressed their views with clarity and compactness that the students of today’s Pakistan desperately need. In comparison, other IHEs confine themselves to so-called conferences and seminars on innocuous topics such as advertising, computers, marketing and sales. In Islamabad, the situation is even worse.

In this intellectual desert land, when the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation announced a seminar on International Human Rights Day on Dec 10 in collaboration with the Islamabad campus of Szabist, it was a breath of fresh air. With speakers such as Afrasiab Khattak, Bilawal Bhutto, Farhatullah Babar, Harris Khalique, Nafeesa Shah, Zafarullah Khan, and others it was a delight to be present there and listen to thought-provoking discourses. It is important to share with a wide readership the concerns raised and the ideas shared at this event, as most in the media are reluctant to educate us on the real issues of this country apart from the usual claptrap about corruption and threats to Pakistan.

Afrasiab Khattak was as hard-hitting as he has always been. He questioned the state narrative on the erstwhile Fata and the role of non-state actors there. Though Fata has been merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the freedom of movement of the people there is highly curtailed in the name of security. Moreover, the strictness that was imposed on Fata is apparently being extended. Afrasiab Khattak also raised his voice for human rights and political activist Baba Jan of Gilgit, who has been in prison for years now.

But the real attraction of the seminar was Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who articulated his position on democracy, election manipulation, fundamental and human rights, puppetry, and the process of ‘selection’, in detail. It was a pleasure to listen to this youthful politician who appears to possess the charisma of his mother, courage of his father, and eloquence of his maternal grandfather. Bilawal in no uncertain terms asserted that he and his party would not compromise on the issues of human rights in the country. Speaking at an educational institution, he reminded the audience that the government of his party in Sindh had become the first provincial government to restore student organizations and unions.

Not only students but also teaching and non-teaching staff, in Bilawal’s opinion, had every right to form their associations. It was so encouraging and heartening to see this come from a national-level political leader, who was sharing his candid opinion on such matters. He said that during the Z A Bhutto government in the 1970s, student associations were allowed to function and union elections were regularly held without any ban or restrictions on them. It was the cursed period of General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship that saw a complete ban on student associations and unions.

Then he went on to say that freedom of expression was the most fundamental right – so much so that it could be termed ‘the mother of all rights’ as it makes people aware of other rights. This is so true because the violations of all other rights are possible only when freedom of expression is curtailed; that is the reason all fascist tendencies spawn from the curtailment of freedom of expression. For example, when people are deprived of freedoms of association, or freedom of movement, it is freedom of expression that allows people to highlight such issues.

Bilawal struck a chord with the audience when he mockingly talked about ‘freedom after speech’ in Pakistan, meaning you are at times allowed to express yourself but if you raise fingers at the most powerful segments of society you are targeted after your speech. A fine example of this is Mufti Kifayat Ullah who recently became a victim of some ‘unknown’ people who attacked him with rods and beat him black and blue. This was perhaps in response to his objections on TV against some retired and ubiquitous ‘defence analysts’.

Another point that Bilawal highlighted was how the present government is violating the economic rights of the people of Pakistan. With increasing inflation and high prices of essential commodities skyrocketing, the poverty level in Pakistan is alarming. And this affects all other rights also, such as labour rights, children’s rights and women’s rights, as they are forced to work under inhuman conditions without any protection from state. As the financial condition of the poor deteriorates, they are compelled to work for meagre payments that can hardly compensate for the amount of labour they put in.

Concluding his concise speech, Bilawal talked about the importance of free and fair elections in Pakistan. He rightly pointed out that manipulated elections produce puppet governments that make puppet legislation. This puppetry has to stop, said Bilawal as he expressed his complete dissatisfaction at the way things are moving in Pakistan. He has a point there when he says that elections should be election and not selection, because the country suffers as people are deprived of their right to choose their elected leaders in a fair and free manner.

Farhatullah Babar and Harris Khalique were also unequivocal in their demand of the judiciary that it play a proactive role in protecting human rights. Babur mocked the propaganda about the so-called fifth generation warfare that some ‘analysts’ want us to believe. In the age of 5G communication, the only way to counter freedom of expression is to raise a hue and cry about a 5G war which Babar thinks is nothing but a flight of imagination. Harris Khalique specifically highlighted the issue of continued abductions that are termed enforced disappearances.

Nafeesa Shah and Zafarullah Khan were also forceful in their demands that the National Commission on Human Rights and the National Commission on the Status of Women must be reactivated so that they can play their due role in society. These two commissions have become inactive because of the lack of interest shown by the PTI government in them. Similarly, the right to education and the right to information also came under discussion at the seminar which was held in the jam-packed hall of the Szabist Islamabad campus. Asif Khan, the head of the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation, must be encouraged and praised for his efforts in organizing such seminars.

Finally, our educational institutions are failing in their duty if they don’t raise awareness among their students about human rights. Our youth have to become confident, creative, and responsible citizens; and that cannot happen unless there are opportunities for them to engage in discourses on some of the fundamental issues of our society.

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

Email: [email protected]

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