Asma Jahangir and Aasim Sajjad Akhtar -- Hussain Afzal/White Star
Asma Jahangir and Aasim Sajjad Akhtar -- Hussain Afzal/White Star

“Because I attend literary festivals often, I know that we will all say beautiful things, but nothing will come of it,” said Mohammed Hanif at the session, ‘Human Rights and Wrongs in Pakistan.’

Hanif was speaking along with Asma Jahangir, academic Aasim Sajjad Akhtar and anthropologist Dr Cabeiri deBergh Robinson at what was arguably the most fascinating session on offer. All four panelists spoke candidly and boldly, unlike a majority of the retired bureaucrats and diplomats who lorded over other sessions and mostly spouted the state narrative. Jahangir and Hanif were particularly eloquent and spoke almost entirely in Urdu (again, unlike most of the statesmen and writers).

Hanif’s is a timely critique of the “lit fest” phenomenon just as Pakistan’s now annual ‘Literary Spring’ is under way. It bears wondering whether this seasonal, self-congratulatory cultural “renaissance,” this brand of dissent — brought to us by HBL and Coca Cola — actually effect tangible change.

The session began with an thoughtful presentation by Dr Robinson, who distilled years of research into a quarter of an hour, explaining the intricacies of international humanitarian laws (“wars are justified as humanitarian projects”) and human rights (seen by detractors as a “superficial propaganda ploy”). While referring to the recently promulgated Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, essentially our version of the 2001 US Patriot Act, she warned that the “state [is] making provisions that undermine its own authority.” She emphatically said that “it is extremely dangerous when states do this.”

Facilitated by the very lively Roland deSouza, the conversation then moved to Pakistan’s current human rights quagmire. Jahangir had just sat through an intolerable, former-diplomat-laden, India-bashing session, ‘Geo-political Equation: Pakistan in the World.’ During that thoroughly unimaginative discussion, which could be had anytime at Islamabad Club, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi claimed that the Pakistan Army “unwillingly” takes control of the country every so often, and then exits unwillingly.

Asma Jahangir said she could not believe her ears and took to task intelligence agencies, right-wing clerics, militants and apathetic citizens with equal ferocity. “We are being challenged by powerful forces that will kill our minorities … that will isolate us in the world, which we cannot afford.” At times, she leavened the grave subject with humour: “If, in this century, these mullahs try to dictate to us women what our rights are or are not, we’ll force you into shuttlecock burqas.” Jahangir also reminded the current government of the crucial role that civil society played in resisting the regime of General Musharraf. “If Nawaz Sharif has come into power, it is because of us. Laathian aur jailain hum nae kaati hain.”

She was also scathing in her opposition to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench’s 1990 decision that termed land reforms “un-Islamic.” It is not news, of course, that religion is misused by the right wing to bludgeon the rest of Pakistan into submission or to sway the national mood. Jahangir said all these daring things against the backdrop of what she called a “Taliban welcome committee” set up by the PML-N, as if to joyously “shower them with flowers, ke bhayi Taliban aa rahay hain!” After the tepid session earlier, it was a relief to listen to people who are truly invested in Pakistan and work in meaningful ways to improve it.

Akhtar, affiliated with the Awami Workers’ Party, decried an “international order that commits state terror in the name of human rights,” while also faulting progressive Pakistanis for not building a consensus against the right. “Once upon a time, not very long ago, there was something called the Left,” he said, agreeing with Jahangir’s assertion that the state is complicit in human rights abuses and insisting that “surely, politics is also the solution.” Whereas he did not specify exactly how to achieve more accountable governance via politicking, Akhtar was well-meaning and responsive to the other panelists’ ideas.

He was followed by Mohammed Hanif who focused on enforced disappearances and, like Akhtar, blamed ordinary Pakistanis for not standing up for the Baloch. “We do not name the perpetrators, even though we know who they are,” he said, referring to the Frontier Corps, Pakistan’s smorgasbord of intelligence agencies and militants.

In 2012, Hanif authored the poignant, beautifully written pamphlet, The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are, after travelling through Balochistan with a fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Perhaps more than any other Pakistani writer in English today, Hanif has combined his gift with fearless advocacy. Especially as he talked of how “life expectancies of the Baloch and Shias are quite low,” one hoped that Hanif himself would remain safe. Draconian laws are being rolled out to give free rein to the armed forces, to muzzle netizens.

Suffice it to say, the state of human rights in Pakistan is as tragic and dismal as it ever was. As if any more proof were necessary, toward the end of this session, a woman stood up, took the mic and showed the entire hall the faces of two young children whose father (her nephew) had died in targeted killing. The hall was silent. Real life had barged into a literature festival. Herself a former employee of the Establishment Division, she had tried in vain to investigate her nephew’s murder. In response to her efforts, the state sent her a message: “Tell madam to tone it down, or face the consequences.”

It was difficult not to be moved by the woman’s moral strength, or to feel for Pakistan’s missing (more than 14,000 at last count), its dead, its oppressed. And more so for their families, who can look forward to thousands upon thousands of moments of state-sponsored silence. Earlier on, Jahangir had said: “Insaaniyat sae baraa koi religion nahin hae.” The Taliban, FC, ISI — all of them seem to have missed the memo.

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