Pakistan's 'diminishing democracy': Where dissent is a crime

Thirty prominent human rights advocates and peace activists, who disagree with a lot that is happening in Pakistan. Either living at home, but most of them exiled abroad, participated in the conference titled Enforced Disappearances, State-sanctioned killings, & Diminishing Democracy in Pakistan, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor 

Mahendra Ved May 29, 2020
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The rampaging coronavirus has alarming portends for Pakistan, not just for public health but democratic freedoms as well. Conditions so far as civil liberties are concerned could go from bad to worse, critics of  Prime Minister Imran Khan's government have voiced their apprehensions at a recent virtual conference.

Democracy is "diminishing" under a government that is ineptly handling coronavirus, but is going full-blast after its critics. The aftermath of the pandemic, as and when it comes, could mean more severe attacks on people who voice their disagreement with the government, said participants at the conference organized by South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH).

Saath Forum 2020 was the fourth virtual meeting by the grouping of pro-democracy Pakistanis co-hosted annually by author and former Pakistan ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani and US-based Pakistani columnist, Dr. Mohammad Taqi.  

Thirty prominent human rights advocates and peace activists, who disagree with a lot that is happening in Pakistan. Either living at home, but most of them exiled abroad, participated in the conference titled Enforced Disappearances, State-sanctioned killings, & Diminishing Democracy in Pakistan.

State repression

While COVID-19 is the latest worry, the issues covered by the participants were those that are long pending and have formed part of Pakistan’s polity. These  included repressive measures adopted as a routine by the state that has a civilian façade adopted by the military-civil bureaucracy. It forms the “deep state within state” that calls all the shots in Pakistan,  

Participants from Pakistan, the US, the UK, France, the Netherlands and Canada joined the two-hour-long deliberations held online. These dissenting voices, some of whom have managed to dodge the state dragnet and escaped into exile in different countries, expressed deep concern about the tactics used by the security establishment to undermine democracy and fundamental freedoms.

The meeting of prominent Pakistani human rights defenders, public intellectuals, journalists, scholars and journalists heard politicians Senator Afrasiab Khattak, Farah Ispahani, Mohsin Dawar; activists Gul Bukhari, Gulalai Ismail, Saba Ismail, Waqas Goraya, Annie Zaman; journalists Taha Siddiqui, Marvi Sirmed; and intellectuals like Kamran Shafi, Dr. Saghir Shaikh, and Rasool Mohammad.

These participants are often disliked by the state, the mullahs and the far-right conservative section of society for their outspoken criticism of the policies and narratives of the state.

This was the first virtual meet in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has thrown up worrying trends. Prime Minister Khan is perceived as lukewarm towards lockdowns,  saying these will be economically disastrous and, although claiming to be “on the same page” with the military, was overruled by the military that set a lockdown timetable. The effort, however, was weakened by a bureaucracy working half-heartedly for lack of clarity at the top, and working with poor civic and health infrastructure.

Several participants representing a wide range of interests in Pakistan’s public life, including left-leaning social and liberal democrats; regions including Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun, and Seraiki nationalists; and intersectional feminists noted with concern that the situation in Pakistan has escalated several notches from being "a hybrid democracy to a hybrid martial law."

Mohammad Taqi said in his opening address that the purpose of this conference was to do advocacy. “We need to raise our voice since the situation in Pakistan is quite bleak. There is a lot of intellectual suffocation,” he said.


The conference kicked off with an intervention by Mohsin Dawar, Pakistani parliamentarian and PTM (Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement) leader, who spoke about the current political climate in the country. “Unfortunately, Pakistan’s political parties are compromised. The military is everywhere. They are micromanaging Pakistan. There is a vacuum for a real democratic force in the country,” he told the participants.

Onslaught against democracy

As per a report circulated about the conference, Senator Afrasiab Khattak raised the issue of clandestine efforts by the establishment to roll back the provincial autonomy provided by the 18th constitutional amendment. “We must resist the onslaught against democracy and especially the 18th Amendment. Since 2014, there has been a creeping coup and going after the amendment is part of that agenda,” Mr. Khattak said.

Activist Gulalai Ismail, who escaped to the West last year, leaving her family back home, spoke of “thousands of displaced Pashtuns” who continue to live without their homes because of militarization of the tribal belt. “This has given rise to the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). Arif Wazir is just one example of many target killings in tribal areas,” Ms. Ismail said, pointing to the recent high-profile killing of a PTM leader in Waziristan.

Former Pakistan Ambassador to Cuba, Kamran Shafi said that coercion of politicians and regime critics in the name of accountability had “gone wild and rampant.” “While we should expect politicians to be more proactive, the current regime was using the coercive power of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) with no speedy recourse to the Superior Judiciary. NAB has morphed into an institution higher than Parliament and the government. combined,” he stressed.

Journalist Taha Siddiqui highlighted the recent case of exiled Baloch journalist Sajid Husain who was found dead in Sweden. “His mysterious death is a concern to all dissidents like us abroad. I hope Swedish authorities can catch the perpetrators, but if it is the work of Pakistani agencies, it is unlikely that they left a footprint,” Mr. Siddiqui said.

Former parliamentarian and author Farahnaz Ispahani raised the issue of the violence against and perpetual oppression of minorities in Pakistan. “The minorities in Pakistan are struggling even more due to COVID-19. We must focus our efforts in providing them relief. They are the most vulnerable group in the country in this pandemic,” Ispahani said.

In his concluding remarks, Husain Haqqani referred to the pandemic and its impact on Pakistan. “The post-COVID-19 environment will only aggravate Pakistan’s crisis. To counter it, instead of persisting with old, failed policies, a new approach must be adopted. “It should be based on tolerance, democracy, genuine federalism,” Haqqani said.

He further added that Pakistan has a better chance moving forward as a democracy and a federation. “Unfortunately anti-democracy elements paint democrats and pro-federation voices as anti-Pakistan,’ he added.

Haqqani said dissent from established narratives has always proved useful for states and societies to correct their rotten traditions. However, most people find it difficult to question certain beliefs, ideologies, or narratives they have been continuously fed.

The history of the world proves that it was dissenting people like Galileo, Copernicus, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others like them who not only changed the way people thought but also were able to bring changes to their societies and the world.

Dissent a crime

In  Pakistan where dissent is considered a crime, most dissident journalists, intellectuals and human-rights activists find themselves at the receiving end, as not only do the propaganda machinery of the state and mullahs work against them, but most ordinary citizens are brainwashed by that same propaganda to perceive such people as traitors or agents of Western powers who want to destroy the social and political fabric of their country.

A state where dissent is not allowed or can cost one’s career or even his life can resemble a graveyard, as living societies reflect pluralism. Different opinions and ideologies are respected in the civilized countries even if they are not endorsed by the authorities or if the general masses are unaware of the invisible dynamics at work in the corridors of power.

Conference participants said one has to give credit to Haqqani, who faced the wrath of the 'invisible forces' in a fabricated case called ‘memogate’ as the Chief Justice of Pakistan at the time, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, left no stone unturned to find a way to convict him of treason.

Haqqani after resigning from his post settled in the US, and since then has worked with think tanks and provided a platform to dissenting journalists and intellectuals.

The conference organizers said that over 30 participants joined the conference that used the #SAATHVirtualConf2020. The hashtag trended in Pakistan. We also received reports that Pakistani users experienced Twitter and other social media websites outages, which we suspect was done to disrupt the Pakistani public from following the conference’s deliberations.

As SAATH was airing its virtual conference on Twitter so people in Pakistan could watch it live, first the Internet became slow, and then the forum’s Twitter account was restricted. That raised the suspicion among SAATH members and its followers in Pakistan that the authorities had deliberately intervened in order to censor the proceedings.

Though no statement from the authorities in Pakistan was given, SAATH said the government should clarify if it was done deliberately or if there was a legitimate problem with the Internet. Who restricted access to the SAATH Twitter handle, and why was it restored soon after the virtual conference was over?

(The writer is President, Commonwealth Journalists Association.  The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)

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