Diplomat uses sledgehammer

04 Feb 2017


HIS CV says he was an “aeronautical engineer” before joining the Foreign Service, but having had the benefit of listening to the views of Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria, one can say he was more suited to tasks accomplished with a sledgehammer dipped in unadulterated sarcasm.

The clip I saw left me utterly speechless. Addressing a seminar on the Kashmir issue and the Indian atrocities in the valley, Mr Zakaria suddenly attacked the ‘bloggers’ — yes — the most recent victims of enforced disappearance (since returned) in Pakistan. He didn’t spare their supporters either.

That this man, tasked with explaining the country’s views and policies in key areas to the world, was so completely bereft of empathy, nous and even diplomatic sense, was shocking as he mocked the social media activists.

In a voice seething with derision, he asked why these people who got a ‘lot of publicity’ and sympathies could not see Indian brutalities in Kashmir, including blinding of children even when they were ‘insani huqooq ke alambardar’ (standard-bearers of human rights).

It isn’t clear what he was trying to achieve. Was he justifying their enforced disappearance, and ridiculing the civil society protest over their kidnapping, or was he somehow blaming them for what is happening in India-held Kashmir? Yes, those who suffered untold anguish, along with their loved ones, during their still unexplained ordeal.

In either case, he was way out of line. With such luminaries articulating our foreign policy — and who knows if the quality of those actually formulating it is any better — the only certainty is that Pakistan will continue to remain adrift in the international community.

With such luminaries articulating our foreign policy, the only certainty is that we will continue to remain adrift.

Frankly, I am more within my rights to ask what the government, whose viewpoint it is Nafees Zakaria’s job to represent, has done to alleviate the suffering of the Kashmiri victims of Indian atrocities. It has lurched from one crisis to another, taking positions that shift like sand.

Yes, one day government functionaries say that Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) leader Hafiz Saeed is a free man to hold rallies and continue his ‘social and charity’ work as there is no evidence against him, and the next day a ‘policy decision is taken in the national interest’ to place him under house arrest. He starts his incarceration by holding a news conference!

There can be no doubt that even with the CPEC lifeline thrown to Pakistan the international environment for the country is getting more and more challenging, particularly with a seemingly unhinged right-wing president now in office in the United States. If our response is formulated and articulated by such callous bureaucrats, then we will be justified in feeling alarmed.

His remarks against the ‘bloggers’ and their supporters came even as the government seems unable and helpless to hold to account the kidnappers. It can’t act against those still hell-bent on inciting violence against them. Is it that difficult to register criminal cases against those using media and social media to level utterly baseless allegations of blasphemy against the victims of enforced disappearances?

One can say with certainty that if anyone had evidence of blasphemy against them beyond mere allegations, it would have surfaced by now and been presented in a court of law. Therefore, it should be totally unacceptable to level such false allegations.

We have the example of the late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was falsely accused of blasphemy; such hysteria was whipped up that a member of Taseer’s own security detail emptied two AK-47 magazines into the man he was getting paid to protect.

So those who wish to silence the social media activists, some of whom also raise their voices over human rights issues in their own country, may have found a novel way of using their surrogates in the media and the clergy to continue to accuse them of blasphemy and, in doing so, pinning a target on their backs.

They and their families will continue to live in dread for a long time even if nothing happens, such is the unfortunate environment in the country. And allow me to say, to Nafees Zakaria and those of his ilk in the security establishment, that what some of these supposed dissidents do serves the national interest more than any mantra parroted by mindless robots.

I have a clear recollection of what those who disagreed while pointing out the dangers were called when Gen Zia decided to take Pakistan into a superpower confrontation and made it a party to a fight in which we were totally out of our league.

If only someone had listened to those calling for sanity and for national interest to be held supreme rather than labelling them as foreign agents and traitors, we could possibly have avoided so much pain and suffering. Now we lament rather vociferously how much we lost due to the US-led wars in the region and how we have been abandoned time and again by Washington.

Side by side with harmonious civil-military relations, there is also a need for new thinking in the country and its key institutions, particularly those entrusted with its security. A diversity of thoughts and ideas propels nations to attain new heights.

In our case we rather tragically fear ideas and thoughts different to ours and react as if diversity leaves us poorer, even threatened, rather than enriched and stronger. This needs to be acknowledged by one and all, individuals and institutions, if we are to move ahead.

Monopolies of wisdom and patriotism are a sure-fire route to self-righteous disaster. Equally, it needs to be clear to all sides (and I mean all) in any national debate that one can articulate one’s position civilly and lawfully. Incitement to violence, possibly even murder, neither represents free speech nor does it fall in the ‘diversity of opinion’ category.

This is the only way forward. Intolerance has to be shunned.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.


Published in Dawn February 4th, 2017