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A woman of courage

September 15, 2018


THE Sharif family must be reeling from the loss and grief at the passing of their loved and revered Begum Kulsoom Nawaz in London. May she find eternal peace.

One recollection of her will forever remain etched in my mind. This was of an interview she gave my then BBC colleague Shafi Naqi Jamie when she was leading the PML-N after the October 1999 military coup that saw the ouster and imprisonment of her husband and brother-in-law.

We were readying ourselves for that afternoon’s Sairbeen transmission of the BBC Urdu Service and since Begum Kulsoom Nawaz was leading her party’s protest in Lahore, as a major newsmaker that day, we decided to interview her.

When Shafi got through to her, she explained that she may not have long as she had locked herself in a car after the police tried to arrest her and the cops had summoned a crane to lift and move her car off the main road so as to stifle her protest.

Kulsoom Nawaz’s huge reservoir of strength could be evidenced in the quiet dignity with which she bore her travails.

Earlier, she had broken through the police cordon around her Model Town home in Lahore with an aide at the driving wheel before being intercepted.

Of course some 18 years down the line it would be difficult to recall her exact words but I was in the studio as my colleague was interviewing her and I was gobsmacked by the clarity of the calm, composed woman who was responding to his questions with a keen political sense.

She was politically astute without doubt and dignified to a fault. The interview over, I was flummoxed why the PML-N never sought to have Begum Kulsoom Nawaz on the front line of the party as she seemed to be their best foot forward.

The only explanation I can find is that it must have been her own choice as the polite yet utterly determined woman, whose voice and words I heard in that studio, would not have been told by anyone else what she could or could not do.

This impression was cemented by subsequent media interviews she gave, particularly one with her husband Mian Nawaz Sharif. Her huge reservoir of courage and strength could also be evidenced in the quiet dignity with which she suffered her illness and all her travails.

Perhaps, the fortunes of the party would have presented a different picture if she’d been in good health and prepared to lead the party after her husband’s ouster from office and imprisonment more recently. But it is pointless speculating about something that was not to be.

I can only offer my deepest condolences to her husband, children and all other loved ones among her family and friends who would be under the weight of immeasurable grief. Hope and pray all of them find solace and the strength.

Those who knew her personally have written and talked about her kindness, intellect, wisdom, her love of poetry and literature and her command over the Urdu language. All I saw of her, apart from that telling interview, was an immensely dignified woman who happily left the limelight for her loved ones.

While the news of her death, underlined by the circumstances of her final days, would obviously fill anyone with even an ounce of empathy and humanity with sadness, the poison that had now spread far and wide among the our society was also on display.

Many of the Sharifs tormentors tried to do the right thing in line with our traditions (what if a tad hypocritically) by offering sympathies and condolences to the family and even offering words of tribute for her.

Then, there were those too, among them some high-profile figures, who tweeted messages which can, at best, be described as being in utterly in bad taste including warning the family ‘not to make political capital’ out of its loss.

Every individual is entitled to their opinion and equally the right to expressing it as such. However, isn’t the exercise of such freedoms best tempered with some common sense and a sense of one’s own dignity on an occasion as sad and tragic as the one being discussed?

Wouldn’t silence have been a much better option?

Silence brings me to another important development this week. This was the release of the rather damning report on media freedoms in Pakistan by CPJ, the Committee to Protect Journalists. The report painstakingly chronicles the immense pressure that has become the norm for a number of months now.

The new information minister, who has reiterated his commitment to media freedoms a number of times since assuming office, needs to read the report at his earliest convenience and then, if he so chooses, present a summary to the prime minister.

Prime Minister Imran Khan ought to be mindful of some of the issues surrounding his electoral win and his ascent to power and, therefore, should move with alacrity to order all state institutions under his command to let the media do its job unimpeded.

Where there is any transgression of the law of the land or the Constitution, laws exist to haul the guilty parties to court and to be made to account for their indiscretions or crimes. The one thing that is totally uncalled for and unacceptable is the constant barrage of demands to newsroom editors, listing what they can or cannot do.

Imran Khan seems to have an ambitious reform agenda to implement. A free media will be a vital ally in any such undertaking. It is time, the government stepped forward to make clear to state institutions what is acceptable.

In the coming weeks, it will become abundantly clear whether burnishing its democratic credentials is as important to it as it should be to any elected government or whether it feels its interest is best served by letting state institutions have leeway in areas such as ‘media management’.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2018