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Of ban and boycotts

February 19, 2012

THERE are many in Pakistan who argue that the problem with the country is not its uneducated millions, but its educated: those who ought to know better (and too often, to the detriment of the rest of the country, operate under the belief that they do).

Let us take the legal community as a representative case. In Lahore, controversy has been stirred by a supposed ban on the sale of Shezan juices at the canteen of the district and sessions court.

A group of lawyers who call themselves the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat Lawyers’ Forum moved a Lahore Bar Association resolution to curtail the sale of the brand on the grounds that the company was owned by members of the Ahmadi community. And while bar officials say that in order to hold, the resolution has to be approved by the general council of the LBA, the prohibitive atmosphere is such that the brand has already vanished from the lower courts’ canteen.

However the issue is eventually resolved, much of the damage has already been done. The point of concern here is that such a discriminatory resolution was proposed at all.

For the purposes of this argument, it is immaterial who the owners of the company actually are. That is under dispute too, and while one could argue that the KNLF proposal is all the more shocking for having been based on speculation, that still does not detract from the inappropriateness of the move in the first place.

There are a couple of threads to think through here. First, there is the matter of the so-called educated who ought to have known better. Lawyers, of all people, ought to be aware of the fact that everyone in Pakistan has the constitutional right to carry on with their business and to a life free from racial, religious or ethnic prejudice. Of course it doesn’t work that way in actual practice, but that ideal is what is there on the books. And what is the lawyers’ mandate but to argue as per the letter of the law?

Further, the decision of any individual must be delineated from a resolution proposing a ban, which is obviously far more formal and institutional in nature.

An individual may choose not to purchase a certain brand because of reasons of prejudice, personal belief, ethics or politics. But a ban, proposed by an institution or an organisation, can only be considered credible if it is based on the last two points, and then only after having followed a considered and sound logic.

Some may be tempted to argue that the case is no different to instances where people, or even countries, have banned or boycotted goods coming from certain places or produced under certain conditions.

Many people, for example, boycott Israeli products. In some countries, groups lobbied with their governments to stop importing American goods. Pakistan itself has suffered economically because of the European Union’s reluctance to put on its markets carpets manufactured here. South African goods were for a long time amongst the most boycotted products in the world.

But in all such cases, the boycotts or bans have been suggested or implemented as a means of protesting against the policies or practices of governments or groups that are considered to have crossed certain lines that ought not to be crossed.

Those who boycott Israeli products do so in protest against the government of Israel’s policies vis-à-vis Palestine, for example. The anti-American imports lobbyists of the earlier part of the decade were hoping to build pressure against the invasion of Iraq. South African goods were boycotted because of the apartheid nature of the regime, and the import of Pakistani carpets was resisted because of the rampant use of child labour in the industry.

In all such cases, the bans or boycott would end as soon as the problem was addressed — once the Pakistan carpet industry stopped abusing the rights of children or Israel the rights of Palestinians or South Africa the rights of its indigenous population.

By contrast, the KNLF has proposed a ban on the basis of religion alone; one which would not just become a precedent for all sorts of religious prejudice, but also be applied indiscriminately to all members of that faith who have done nothing to provoke it.

Tomorrow, are we going to have a situation in which a Sunni group recommends a ban against anything manufactured by a Shia-owned company, or vice versa? Will we be asked to stomach a ban simply because X company is owned by a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim family? Or a Sindhi or Punjabi or Baloch family? Will Sir Gunga Ram Hospital treat only members of one religion, and Lady Reading Hospital that of another?

Ludicrous as it sounds, this is precisely the direction in which the KNLF resolution takes us.

We are all far too well aware of the fact that Pakistan has become a place of prejudice and intolerance, and where merely being from a certain ethnic, sectarian or religious community is enough to warrant death. One would expect the educated and the aware to be part of the move towards progressiveness, not standing amongst the ranks of those who are trying to keep the country in the dark.

But then, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at the KLNF. Even amongst lawyers, a community that is fast losing the respect it garnered a few years ago, the group hardly stands alone in being regressive and discriminatory.

For anyone who wants Pakistan’s future to be different to its current trajectory, it is hard to forget the images of black-suited ‘gentlemen’ showering rose petals on Malik Mumtaz Qadri and shouting slogans in support of a man who broke the most fundamental law of all. This, then, is the face of the Pakistan of tomorrow: the educated arguing for discrimination, lawlessness and regression. There is every reason for the masses, over whose fates they preside, to despair.

The writer is a member of staff.