IT is gratifying that the government of Pakistan has conferred a civilian award posthumously on Iqbal Haider, a former law minister and senator but remembered now as one of the country’s foremost human rights and peace activists.
The award came befittingly on Dec 10, Human Rights Day. This was shortly after a reference was organised by the Joint Action Committee and a number of civil society organisations at the Karachi Press Club last Wednesday.
When the reference was held, it was over three weeks since Iqbal Haider had departed from our midst. But a sense of loss continued to haunt the occasion which brought together a large crowd of his friends and admirers who recalled his services to the numerous good causes he passionately supported.
As speaker after speaker paid rich tributes to this man who stood for principles and the rule of law, and showed courage of conviction and commitment in difficult times, it seemed as though he would walk in any time to join the proceedings and listen with a frown to the tales of oppression and exploitation that were being recounted.
Although it was an emotional evening where tearful smiles mingled with painful anger at the state of our society that had provoked Iqbal Haider so strongly, the reference will be long remembered for the inspiration and the outpouring of pledges of commitment it brought forth.
In a way it was a reaffirmation of what Iqbal Haider stood for. His love for Pakistan and its people, and above all his commitment to the rule of law, human rights and peace were unquestionable. Moreover, he pursued these causes with a rare passion and inspiration.
Although he sometimes wrote for the opinion page of this paper to articulate his point of view on the multifarious issues he felt strongly about, his writing was seasoned and his position well-argued. He was a man of two dimensions. As a writer he was calm and collected. As a man of action he was full of fury.
I recall how he would come down to my room in Dawn — his office was on the second floor of Haroon House — to discuss vociferously the theme of the article he was planning. He would be so vocal, that I waited with trepidation for his contribution not knowing what the end product would be and how I would fit a lengthy piece in the limited space available to me. When the article did arrive it would be a compact, rationally argued piece of writing manifesting the fine intellect of a legal mind.
In recent months when Pakistan has been cursed with religious extremism, Iqbal Haider’s focus was on secularism. He felt strongly about the issue and pursued it vigorously. He termed this endeavour the Forum for Secular Pakistan which was announced in June 2012 at the Karachi Press Club where some of us gathered — Sherbaz Mazari and Hasil Bizenjo were also present — to introduce the statement he had so carefully drafted and circulated among us.
He made it clear that secularism stands for “acceptance of all religions and equal treatment to their adherents”. It “secures their space while allowing state protection of that space”.
The statement read: “Pakistan started its journey with wrong priorities, the ultimate objective of which was to make Pakistan a national security state, almost completely ignoring the importance of social development and public welfare.”
While he was working to have the Forum registered as a civil society organisation, he began to mobilise support for a petition he planned to file in the Supreme Court in support of secularism. He had a distinct style of bringing people together for the causes he championed. In the process he focused individually on each person. That is how all the speakers at the KPC event had a unique story to tell.
I am sure each and every person in the audience who was there last Wednesday would also have had an untold story waiting to be told. That is how he made an impact. It was this strategy that produced results and small wonder the reference resounded with pledges to continue the work he had started. He is dead but his spirit lives on.
There is a strong realisation that his work has to be sustained. A speaker was spot on when he observed that to accomplish Iqbal Haider’s mission the system will have to be changed drastically. That is why his views on secularism were so important. He believed in raising his voice loud and clear against every human rights violation that took place in the name of religion. That was important to protect the victims and gather support for them. But the focus had to be on the reform of the system — social, political and economic.
When the emphasis is heavily on religion it can spawn a wave of sectarian killings as we see happening today. It is not just the extremists like the Pakistani Taliban, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, etc that are the culprits. Those who fan religiosity on the pretext of promoting a theocratic state should also share the blame.
And when Pakistanis fail to condemn the killings — whether the victims are Shias or Ahmadis — they become equally guilty. I then wonder what Iqbal Haider would have had to say about little Mehzar Zehra, the latest victim of sectarian violence, who is likely to sink quietly into oblivion.