DOES the name Shaukat Ahmed Ghani mean anything to you? In all likelihood you have never heard of the young Kashmiri student who has spent the past two months in a jail in the Indian city of Agra where he was studying civil engineering.
Two of his fellow engineering students from India-occupied Kashmir, Inayat Altaf Sheikh and Arshad Yusuf, are also facing sedition charges. Their crime: their WhatsApp status was applauding and supporting the Pakistan team when it defeated India in the T20 World Cup last October.
All three are currently being held in Agra prison with local lawyers refusing to accept their brief because they committed a “crime against the motherland”. A governing BJP official told the BBC that the three are in custody because of fear of ‘disturbances’.
At their last hearing, BJP activists tried to assault them as police led them to a vehicle to transport them back to jail and raised slogans against them and Pakistan. One can be reasonably sure Gandhi and Nehru would have (metaphorically) turned in their final resting place.
The one politician who’d be pleased with this no end would be the Conservative peer Lord Tebbit who’d coined the phrase ‘The Tebbit test’ for those South Asian and Caribbean Britons who cheered cricket teams from their old countries on tour rather than England.
There seems to be intense competition among the three most populated South Asian countries to trample on freedoms.
Tebbit advanced his theory in 1990 and maintained that those who failed to pass the Tebbit Test were not “significantly integrated” into Britain and asked them: “Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
This of course put the onus of integration into Britain, and in a sense loyalty, on the immigrants and their children and not on the British government which failed to make take concrete steps to integrate them for years. In many cases, two generations of immigrants have spent their entire lives ghettoised.
However, having often failed the Tebbit Test in my nearly two decades in the UK, nobody imprisoned me or tried to lynch me for supporting the ‘wrong cricket team’ or for not supporting England in the football World Cup. In any case, England football’s performance in the international arena does not make it easy to be its fans.
Attitudes and prejudices in a former colonial power are hardly the issue here anyway, but 70 years on from independence, the state of freedom in our own societies is. Despite oppression in Kashmir and the denial of the Kashmiris’ rights since 1947, more generally the state of democracy and free speech in India remained much better than, say, in Pakistan and, since 1971, Bangladesh too.
But as we speak, there seems to be intense competition among the three most populated South Asian countries to trample on media freedoms, and curtail free speech and political freedoms. In India, the oppression the Kashmiris have been familiar with is now being rolled out everywhere in the country.
Images of BJP supporters setting upon rights protesters in New Delhi and then expanding their attacks on the Muslim minority community in the capital; and Muslims being lynched on suspicion of transporting beef in different parts of Uttar Pradesh, which has a saffron-clad preacher as its chief executive, with the police largely remaining either complicit or being helpless bystanders are just two examples.
Many Pakistanis appear very smug when they see human rights being trampled upon in India and forget we have an elected member of the National Assembly, Ali Wazir, jailed without trial for over a year now because he dared to criticise those allegedly committing excesses on the very people they are assigned to protect.
After nearly a year in prison, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court of Pakistan but a couple of weeks later, he is still to see the light of day and breathe freely. He remains confined to his dark, dingy cell in the Karachi Central Jail.
Ali Wazir lost 17 members of his immediate family to the TTP when the terror group enjoyed free rein in the erstwhile Fata and, to be honest, even if the most powerful institution in the country was upset at his remarks, a little compassion, understanding and tolerance would not have been out of place.
But no. A demand has been murmured in the presence of journalists that Ali Wazir could be freed if he apologised. The response of the proud Pakhtun was too strong to be detailed here for fear of recrimination but suffice it to say he refused.
Whether Pakistan or Bangladesh, power is never shared in proportion to your rightful share in the people’s mandate. Machinations and manipulation undermine the democratic will of the people and the more power is usurped by whosoever is able to.
Jailing political opponents, who might provide a check on your arbitrary use and abuse of power and question you in parliament, is routinely resorted to as are legal cases to influence the outcome of elections. This, where outright rigging may not be possible.
In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka, free media is anathema to the power brokers as a vibrant, free media can expose the designs of those who see democracy and its principles as a huge inconvenience, an obstacle to their ambitions, and are ever-willing to contemptuously disregard them.
Cases against journalists, arrests of media practitioners and outright physical threats and intimidation apart from choking the lifelines of media groups by blocking even private advertising streams are just some of the tools used across South Asia.
What a place to be nearly three-fourth of a century after independence, which was won with such huge hopes, ideals, goals and ambitions for creating societies not answerable to a distant colonial master but to the people who would be their own masters through their elected representatives and institutions.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2021