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December 26, 2019

Ripping away our future

Opinion

December 26, 2019

Pakistan has only one hope. It lies with the younger generation that has grown up in the years after the dark dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq, and which may bring with it change in the years ahead.

There is evidence that this younger generation is an active one, committed to their country. There have been cases in courts brought by teenagers on the state of air quality, marches for various causes and at vigils for APS martyrs, schoolchildren play an active part, especially in Peshawar but also beyond it.

Imran Khan himself has emphasized how significant the youth is for the country and his personal appeal to young people was of course one of the key factors which brought the PTI to power. His vision of using younger people to create his ‘new Pakistan’ seemed to be a sound one.

Certainly, the campaign politicised young people who had withdrawn from politics over the years as disillusionment with democracy and democratic rule grew. They also saw in it little future and a very limited role for themselves. Imran and his status as a sporting hero changed this.

But as prime minister, Imran Khan has done nothing to protect young people or keep them safe from harm. There is a real danger that our brightest young professionals, students and others will be forced to leave the country.

This is already happening. Last week, Junaid Hafeez, 32, in prison since 2013 after he was arrested for blasphemy, was sentenced to death by a district and sessions court in Multan.

Junaid had been educated in the US on a Fulbright scholarship and had returned as a lecturer in English literature to teach at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan. He was popular with his students as a dynamic, young teacher.

His previous lawyer, Rashid Rahman, also the coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Multan at the time, was shot dead in 2014. Those fighting his case speak of his father, already almost destroyed by the fate of his son. Yes, appeals lie ahead. There will be more hearings in higher courts. But six years of Junaid’s life have already been taken away from them. He has spent them in solitary confinement in Multan jail. No one can say how many more years behind bars lie ahead for this young man who made the mistake of choosing to teach others.

There are of course other examples; many other examples. Many of us will not easily forget what happened to Mashal Khan, killed at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan. Again, petty administrative politics is believed to be the reason for the vague blasphemy charges brought against him. Sabeen Mahmud, 40, was gunned down in April 2015 in Karachi while driving home in her car with her mother, simply for being too brave. Sabeen, an outspoken activist and defender of those for whom no one else dared raise a voice, had hosted a discussion on enforced disappearances at The Second Floor cafe that she ran, offering a place for debate, discussion and introspection. Each of these people should have lived and been allowed to contribute far more to a society which badly needs more like them.

There are others too who have faced a death-like situation including Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who is still a figure of mass vilification in her own country for reasons that are spectacularly difficult to understand. Shot in the head by a Taliban member in 2012 for advocating the right of girls to education, Malala has become a figure respected elsewhere in the world for demanding that every child and every girl be given the right to quality schooling and the opportunities she needs to progress in life.

Waleed Khan, now 17 years old, was only 12 when he was shot eight times, taking six bullets straight in the face during the Taliban attack on APS in Peshawar. The Pakistan military helped fly him to the UK for prolonged and complex surgery and he was supported in that country by the family of Malala.

Waleed has since used cricket, his passion even as a child, to rebuild his future and featured on the cover of Wisden almanac this year. He hopes to pursue a career in cricket and is a member of the British Youth Parliament, speaking out for the rights of young people everywhere. The loss of such voices from our own midst leaves behind a hollow echo.

There are others who have left. On the streets of Rabwah, or Chenabnagar as it was renamed in 1999 by the then Punjab government, few young men can be seen. The vast majority of them have left for safer places overseas. It is women and children and the elderly who mainly inhabit Rabwah. The Ahmadis feel unsafe here. A successful business community, the young men who now live and raise families in Britain, in Germany, in the US and other places had no choice but to leave.

This is also true for the Hazaras. Of the 700,000 or so Hazaras that still live in Pakistan, most of them cloistered into ghettoes in Quetta, up to four or five young men attempt to leave the country each day, usually across the border into Iran. Each day, a number of them fail and some are killed in the attempt.

Others have drowned while trying to make it away from the country on illegal vessels run by human smuggling gangs. The destruction of this community continues endlessly and, when it is possible for them, members of other minority groups too make attempts to leave.

This was most obviously visible in the days immediately after General Ziaul Haq assumed power in 1977, with school classrooms suddenly clearing of the Christian children who once sat on the wooden benches. Of course, others leave to seek better jobs, better lives, better futures for their children. But the result is that we are losing our most gifted and most committed young people through murder, through the misuse of the blasphemy law and because they can see no hope for themselves in the Pakistan of today.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]