The growth of public floggings in the early years of President Ziaul Haq’s rule is best explained by Zia’s statement to the Foreign Policy Association in New York in December 1982. He stated that his country’s practice of flogging criminals “…is not a matter of degradation of a human being, but a matter of deterrence.” (Courtesy: White Star Photo)
The growth of public floggings in the early years of President Ziaul Haq’s rule is best explained by Zia’s statement to the Foreign Policy Association in New York in December 1982. He stated that his country’s practice of flogging criminals “…is not a matter of degradation of a human being, but a matter of deterrence.” (Courtesy: White Star Photo)

ALL freedom movements have their roots in the aspiration for equal rights under a more equitable system than the one from which independence is sought. The popular uprising against the British colonists in India was, in fact, a rallying cry for people’s rights in a free country.

Similar desires — and disillusion with the status quo — led to the Bengalis fighting for and creating an independent country in 1971, barely 25 years after they had struggled for Pakistan. During this period the denial of socio-economic, political and cultural rights to the majority of the people of the country cost Pakistan dearly. Few, if any, lessons have been learnt.

Much has been written and discussed about the Quaid-i-Azam’s reasoning in demanding a separate country for Muslims and his ‘vision’ for Pakistan. Jinnah’s belief that Hindus and Muslims were two separate nations had implications of ‘otherness’ — the proposition being that the two communities belonging to different faiths could not be expected to live together peacefully.

Yet, the implications of the Two-Nation Theory in the new state clearly worried him to the extent that he made the oft-quoted speech on August 11, 1947. It appears that his fears of persecution of Muslims by the majority in undivided India were rekindled by the thoughts of similar oppression of minority communities by the Muslim majority in Pakistan.

After the denial of rights in the eastern wing of Pakistan, it was the turn of women and minorities during Ziaul Haq’s military rule. However, Pakistanis are a resilient people who have stood up for their rights through the decades.

Many decades later, Aug 11 was declared the ‘Minorities Day’ by the PPP government. However, there could hardly be a more apt example of lip service paid to a commitment made. The harsh reality that faces us is that the status of all religious minorities has steadily declined in Pakistan.

Annual reports of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as well as those compiled by other international organisations monitoring freedom of religion and belief confirm this truth with supporting data and records of incidents of discrimination and intolerance. Over the years, religion has been weaponised in the country to target opponents, personal or political. Laws have been amended to facilitate persecution.

Institutionalised persecution

Although social discrimination has been fairly common in Pakistan, the institutionalisation of faith-based persecution was set in motion during the regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. In the name of Islamisation, he introduced laws and amendments to existing laws that targeted the most vulnerable segments of society — women and non-Muslims.

The set of Hudood Ordinances of 1979 introduced punishments of whipping and amputation of hands — taking the violation of rights to another level. The Zina Ordinance became a weapon against women; its target often being the poorest and the weakest, including a near-blind girl, Safia, who could not identify her rapist.

However, the amendments and additions brought into the blasphemy laws in the 1980s were the true harbingers of the dangers to be faced in the name of faith not only by non-Muslims, but by the Muslim majority as well. Through the amendments, Ahmadis were forbidden from propagating their faith or posing “as a Muslim” (which had a fairly wide description). While amendments in 1986 prescribed the death penalty for anyone defiling the Holy Prophet (PBUH), further amendments in 1990 under instructions of the Federal Shariat Court made the death sentence mandatory.

The status of the Ahmadis, who were already facing discrimination following the constitutional amendment in 1974 that declared them ‘non-Muslims’, became even more precarious following amendments brought about by Zia. Today, their places of worship, their graveyards — and, in fact, their lives — are not safe.

Although more Muslims have been charged and convicted for blasphemy, in terms of population ratio Christians and Ahmadis head the count. It should be noted that while no one has been executed (in spite of being handed the death sentence), about 80 people have been killed on suspicion of blasphemy by lynch mobs or individuals. The more prominent include Punjab governor Salman Taseer, PPP minister Shahbaz Bhatti, Mardan University student Mashal Khan and, more recently, Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara in Sialkot. The acquittal of Asiya Bibi by the Supreme Court in October 2018 brought violent TLP protesters to the streets, while the burning to death of a Christian couple in a Punjab village in 2014 evoked little response.

Students as activists

The country’s first military dictator, Gen Ayub Khan, saw the press as his most potent adversary. The taking over of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, The Pakistan Times and Imroze and the imprisonment of their editors and journalists was an assault not just on the press but on people’s right to freedom of information and expression. While journalists waged their own battles, the strongest resistance to the regime perhaps came from students.

In the 1960s, even as students in Europe and the United States took to the barricades to protest against their governments and systems, students in Pakistan — in both wings — began to organise in the shape of unions that were progressive and challenged the military regime.

It was, ultimately, a popular movement in which both East and West Pakistan participated and in which students played a determining role that brought down the government in 1969. In West Pakistan, students belonging to National Students Federation (NSF) were in the forefront, while, in East Pakistan, the Chhatra League, affiliated with the Awami League of Shaikh Mujib, became a potent force. It played an active role in the Bangladesh freedom movement as well.

Zia banned students’ unions in Pakistan in 1984, leading to increase in violence on campuses. It is only in Sindh that this right to freedom of association was finally restored when the ban was lifted on students’ unions in February 2022.

Organised activism

Under the set of Hudood Ordinances, the first sentence of death by stoning was announced in September 1981. Allah Baksh and Fehmida, who had eloped and married were charged and convicted of adultery. Allah Baksh was sentenced to death by stoning and Fehmida was awarded 100 lashes. It must be conceded that women’s rights groups had not paid much attention to the dangers of the Zina Ordinance till this harsh sentence was given. However, they were quick to mobilise on a single platform and formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). Demonstrations held against the punishment given to the young couple and the attention paid by international media produces results when the said judgement was overturned.

It must be noted that WAF’s protest demonstrations were among the few public shows of opposition to the military regime. This, too, at a time when demonstrators could be jailed, fined or whipped. Later, similar protests also helped save many women from harsh punishments passed under the Zina Ordinance. However, the majority of women in Pakistan’s prisons during Zia’s time were those convicted of adultery.

Protests by WAF also helped water down the impact of the Law of Evidence. The protests that began in Lahore on Feb 12, 1983, were harshly handled by Punjab police and many women were dragged off to prison. In a belated tribute by the state, Feb 12 is now observed as the National Women’s Day in Pakistan. It should also be acknowledged that the first initiative for women’s rights and improving their status was taken by the All-Pakistan Women’s Association (Apwa), led by Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan. Apwa successfully campaigned to bring about improvements in the Family Laws Ordinance, 1962, giving women more security in marriage.

HRCP’s work

In 1986 the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was set up to address the increasing violation of wide-ranging rights under the Zia regime. The initiative came from the platform of the Ghulam Jilani Foundation, and the movers were the sisters Asma and Hina Jilani. Apart from them, the founding members of HRCP included highly respected names from the judiciary, law and the media. Retired Justice Dorab Patel, known for his liberal values and adherence to rule of law, became the first chairperson of the Commission, while Asma Jahangir was the first secretary-general.

The first fact-finding mission that HRCP undertook was in 1986 to the villages of Sindh that had suffered the repercussions of resistance to the Zia regime. From its inception, HRCP set a unique work and organisational model for itself. It chose to be a broad-based membership organisation with its council (or board) elected every three years by a general body representative of people at the grassroots. It reached out to local communities through a network of core groups across the country that reported and worked (voluntarily) for the Commission from their respective areas. It was the grassroots contact that many at the top of HRCP’s leadership continued to maintain which actually resulted in greater awareness of fundamental rights.

As the country’s first and only broad-based human rights NGO, HRCP’s mandate is wide and, at times, appears to be unwieldy. However, the Commission has chosen to focus more on issues that do not have popular support and are generally considered sensitive.

Foremost among these is the sustained campaign against the death penalty and while the country is far from accepting abolition, recent years have seen a decline in executions. It should be noted that following the lifting of the moratorium on death penalty in 2014, Pakistan saw one the highest execution rates in the world over the next few years. Other primary concerns on which HRCP has consistently focussed on are the status and rights of minorities and the phenomenon of enforced disappearances.

Not a moment’s rest

It can be said with conviction that Pakistan’s human rights situation never gives any activist a moment’s rest. Shortly after HRCP’s formation, the distressing status of bonded brick kiln labour came to its attention when an escapee from a brickfield rushed into Asma’s office, asking for help. Less than a year later, some bonded agricultural workers reached HRCP’s Hyderabad office, narrating a similar ordeal.

When HRCP began to investigate, the magnitude of the problem of bonded labour appeared overwhelming; many of those in bondage were women and children. Since bonded labour was outlawed in 1992, the Commission succeeded through the courts to have thousands of peasants freed.

Some years later, with HRCP’s sustained campaign, the freed bonded labourers felt empowered enough to form their own association and began to approach courts themselves. Similarly, the past decades have seen a rise in rights-based organisations focussing on specific areas of concern.

The activism that these rights-based organisations generated, as well as the inter-connectedness of the world put pressure on successive Pakistani governments to sign and ratify significant UN charters and conventions. While Pakistan was among the first countries to sign the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it would be many decades before the governments would commit to the UN charters and conventions that followed.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was signed in 1990 with reservations over the definition of a child. However, Pakistan continues to default on its commitments. No child labour survey has been undertaken in decades and children remain employed in hazardous industries, including mining. Sexual violence against children has also come to light in recent years, with Kasur identified as one of the main centres for child pornography.

The Convention to End all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) was signed by the government of Benazir Bhutto in 1996 after considerable pressure from women’s rights groups. Similarly, Pakistan signed the Convention Against Torture in April 2008 and ratified it in June 2010. However, it appears that torture and extrajudicial killings remain a method of choice for law-enforcers, with a notorious police inspector in Karachi proudly admitting to killing hundreds in fake encounters. Pakistan also ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in June 2010.

The disappeared

So far, the government has resisted signing the Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. In fact, successive governments have failed to address effectively the issue of enforced disappearances which first came to light following Pakistan’s support of the US ‘war on terror’ in 2001.

Initially, most of the victims were from the then Fata or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, with the military action against Akbar Bugti in 2006 and the rise of Baloch resistance, cases of the people going ‘missing’ became rampant. In February 2007, HRCP approached the Supreme Court with a verified list of the missing. The removal of the chief justice a few months later by the Musharraf regime was a setback for the petition though the CJ, on being restored, continued to hear separate cases before recommending the setting up of a Commission of Enquiry on Enforced Disappearances.

The body may have succeeded in getting a few thousand people traced, but it never earned the trust of the families whose members were forcibly disappeared. Families of the missing, particularly from Balochistan, have been protesting for years with little or ineffective response from the state.

In the face of repression and gross violations of rights, Pakistanis have historically shown a strong streak of resistance and resilience. If one were to look at the history of the human rights movement in Pakistan, two names stand out — the late Asma Jahangir and I.A. Rehman. Through their leadership and commitment, they practically became the face of the rights movement in Pakistan, with the most vulnerable reaching out to them without any hesitation, confident that they will be heard.

Apart from the loss of such stalwarts, the human rights movement is also increasingly coming under pressure from the state which is creating a hostile environment. The process of registering and continuing to function has been made extremely difficult for civil society organisations. Moreover, frequent visits from officials of various intelligence agencies create a sense of fear and harassment.

Even as issues of rights become more challenging, the centre of response has shifted from parliament to judiciary. Today, the superior judiciary seems more cognizant of violation of citizens’ rights than the elected representatives. In contrast to the positive legislation enacted by the National Assembly elected in 2008, the subsequent two assemblies enacted little rights-based laws.

As rights groups struggle to respond to violations, there is the stark realisation that their work will become more challenging as Pakistan becomes more and more of a security state, rather than a democratic one.

The writer is a rights activist and a freelance contributor.



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