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April 18, 2021

An anarchy foretold


April 18, 2021

There was, I sense, some providential message in the juxtaposition of I A Rehman’s death with that savage disorder across Pakistan. Rehman Sahib left us on Monday morning and many of his friends and admirers were unable to attend his funeral late that evening because roads were blocked by violent mobs and an intimation of anarchy was in the air.

This was what prescient observers like Rehman Sahib had clearly seen coming. We ought to be aware of where those mobs had come from and how such dark passions were injected into their barren minds. Here was a graphic illustration of the existential crisis of Pakistan: a critical conflict between liberal and orthodox forces and ideas.

There are many ways in which this confrontation can be deciphered, with democratic freedoms stationed in the liberal corner and violent intolerance holding the banner of despotic orthodoxy. Yes, I am finding it hard to work out this conundrum. Rehman Sahib would readily sort it out in simple terms, citing historical facts and invoking the dynamics of the developing socio-economic and political situation in the country.

Since Monday, Pakistan’s civil society is in a state of bereavement. Rehman Sahib was 90 when he died but his passing still felt like a shock. This is, I think, also because of the continuing onslaught of the government against defenders of human rights and political activists who seek social justice and free expression. These are dark and difficult times in which the loss of the country’s leading voice of reason and resistance has naturally caused a lot of distress in the enlightened segment of our society.

It was also on Monday that the supporters of Tehreek-e- Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) spilled out on the streets in major cities to demonstrate the street power of religious extremists. Incidentally, the situation that developed also confirmed the inability – or unwillingness – of the rulers to effectively deal with this particular kind of religious frenzy. It does become a problem when you realise that these people and these emotions were nurtured by the rulers themselves.

In any case, the mobs indulged in senseless violence for three days and there was no writ of the state. In Thursday’s notification to ban TLP, the government also stated that the outfit was “involved in creating anarchy in the country”. How this ban is to be enforced and what it would achieve is not so clear, particularly when there is so much confusion about who is on which side.

Besides, it is not the organisational structure of a party that you have to deal with. The problem is the mindset and the ideas that move passions. That is why they say that, essentially, all battles are fought in the minds of men. It is in this battle that the likes of Rehman Sahib have defended the rights and freedoms of the people to make a just, peaceful and prosperous future possible.

The pity of it – and the tragedy of Pakistan – is that the rulers of Pakistan have consistently been nearer to the ideology of intolerance and extremism than to the creed of democratic social development. Just look at who they persecute and who they pamper. If this can be a measure of where we are headed, there is little we can hope for in our future.

Since Monday, many of us are mourning the death of Rehman Sahib and celebrating his life in virtual references and personal interaction. And this is happening against the backdrop of another nasty encounter of our society with a militant religious group. But the story of the rise and rise of this group has a history intertwined with the struggle of human rights defenders for democracy, tolerance and inclusiveness.

Rehman Sahib was civil society’s guide and philosopher in this struggle. There was one instance in his life when he had a brush with these militants in a personal context. Rashed Rehman, who was shot dead by the bigots because he was the lawyer of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer and Fulbright scholar accused of blasphemy for making some comments on social media. It happened in Multan in May 2014.

Rashed was Rehman Sahib’s beloved nephew and this heartbreaking incident must have shaken him to the core. But Rehman Sahib bore this grief with dignity and fortitude. There is a reason why I have invoked this memory. Incidentally, I was with him in a small dinner in Karachi on that day. I saw him receiving that phone call that suddenly seemed to change the look on his face.

When the call ended, he told us what had happened, keeping his composure. The few minutes that we were together, because he had to rush to make arrangements to reach Multan, he was quiet. So were we, overwhelmed by that moment.

During this week’s conversations with his friends and members of his family, Rashed’s assassination was mentioned a number of times. There are so many memories. I have some of my own. Putting all this together, we had this exceptional human being who had the intellectual capacity to make sense of our abiding sorrows and to figure out the strategy for our redemption.

Yet, he was brutal in his analysis of the existing reality. He could see that the going is getting tougher for human rights defenders and democracy activists. It has, perhaps, never been so bad as it is now. This only means that the campaign for freedom and justice for the oppressed citizens of this country must continue with more vigour and more resolve.

We had a taste of disorder this week that certifies the power of the enemies of progress and enlightenment. If you are still intrigued as to how this happened, then you are not mindful of Pakistan’s history and its national security stratagems. There is this battle of ideas in which the rulers are drifting on the wrong side of history. Rehman Sahib could have explained this to them, but they had no time for him. And now we have lost him.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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