AS soon as former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi began to speak about incarcerated South Waziristan MNA Ali Wazir during his speech, the lights inside the auditorium went out.
The audience at the second edition of the ‘Re-imagining Pakistan’ seminar groaned audibly, as Abbasi stood at the podium in darkness for around 10 minutes, waiting for the power to be restored.
The youth-dominated audience held up their mobile phones with their torches switched on to help. A few minutes later, a voice from the stage said the senior PML-N leader would complete his speech in the lawns of the venue, and everybody rushed out.
However, the speakers merely exited and drove away to the nearby press club, where they were scheduled to address a press conference.
On Saturday, ‘political mavericks’ from across the country had gathered at Peshawar’s Nishtar Hall, the city’s lone cultural centre, in an effort to develop a consensus on the future course of action for all stakeholders to take to bring Pakistan out of the present mess.
They were hosted by Khawaja Muhammad Khan Hoti, the mercurial politician from Mardan. Hoti had quit the PTI a few years after joining it in 2012, and gone on to shake hands with the PPP in 2017.
Prominent among the attendees besides Mr Abbasi were Nawab Lashkari Raisani and Humayun Aziz Kurd from Balochistan, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, Mohsin Dawar and Abdullah Gul, son of the late former intelligence chief Hamid Gul. Former finance minister Miftah Ismail addressed via video link.
Also present were Buland Khan Tarakai from the influential Tarakai family of Swabi; Mukhtar Yousafzai, former general secretary of the PkMAP expelled by Mahmood Khan Ackhazai sometime ago; former KP government spokesperson Ajmal Khan Wazir; and PTI leader from Torhgar, Zar Gul.
Although the event started two hours behind schedule, what was more conspicuous was the absence of women from not just the panel of speakers, but also in the audience. Interestingly, there was only one woman among more than a thousand audience members and speakers in the auditorium.
The highlight of the event was the scathing criticism of the military establishment’s encroachments on political territory, and the speakers called for restricting it to its constitutional role.
Humayun Kurd, in a fiery speech, accused the military of running “death squads” in Balochistan, which he equated with private American military contractor ‘Blackwater’. “We Baloch have been gifted with kidnappings for ransom, missing persons, decomposed bodies and land mafia,” Mr Kurd remarked.
When someone in the audience tried to heckle him during his speech, Mr Kurd threatened to walk off the stage. However, Mr Hoti intervened and asked the audience to behave. “If you embarrass me in front of my guests, I will hold you to account for it,” he categorically told the charged audience.
Miftah Ismail, in his speech, said following the record depreciation of the rupee, the salaried class will feel the heat the most. “The next few months are going to be very tough,” he warned.
He asked the government to increase the minimum wage to Rs35,000 and also nudge the private sector to increase salaries by five to 10 per cent. He also asked the provincial government to pool in Rs200 billion into the BISP The government had got off the track, he regretted, but said luckily it was getting back on track after accepting the IMF’s demands.
Nawab Raisani demanded that all missing persons be presented before courts, Ali Wazir be released and student unions restored. He also asked the establishment to apologise for all the wrongs it inflicted on the nation.
MNA Dawar said the Afghan policy instituted by the generals was still in vogue, adding Pakistan couldn’t progress without limiting the role of the military. He also called for setting up a truth and reconciliation commission to address the past mistakes.
Mustafa Khokhar questioned why people from Gwadar all the way to Swat were protesting. He criticised parliament and the political parties for their silence on the issue.
When a retired brigadier, who was among the speakers, began talking about country’s past, the audience chanted: “agenda, agenda”. After struggling to change course amid the clamour, he walked off the podium midway.
Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2023
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