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Speaking truth to power

June 15, 2012


AS I was researching this article, reading scores of emails and writing to friends and contacts about the reported threat to Asma Jahangir’s life, something odd happened to my Gmail screen.

Now, whenever I open my email account, a red strip appears at the top with the following announcement from Google: “Warning – We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.”

Following the link to security advice, I duly changed my password and switched to Chrome, a Google browser that’s supposed to be more secure. But so far, the problem persists. Any advice from tech-savvy readers would be welcome. I understand Google has recently taken to warning users of such attempts from intelligence agencies to hack into their accounts.

As I am often sent emails by sundry discussion groups, I get a sense of what the topic of the day is on the Internet. Several participants have questioned the authenticity of the threat to Asma Jahangir and its source. One, a certain retired Colonel Jafri asked why the redoubtable lawyer and human rights activist did not register an FIR with the police, and let the law take its course, instead of levelling charges against our spooks.

Clearly, the good colonel has little first-hand knowledge of how our law-enforcement actually functions if he thinks the police would register a case against the Inter Services Intelligence or Military Intelligence. On another online site, Saira Minto accuses Asma Jahangir of ‘sensationalism’.

Now Asma Jahangir hardly needs the publicity generated by this recent story. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that she is probably one of the highest-profile Pakistanis around. Especially in the world of human rights activism, she has become known as a fearless defender of the voiceless and the victimised.

Here, for the sake of full disclosure, let me declare a personal interest in the whole saga: Asma and her husband Tahir Jahangir (better known as TJ ) have been my friends for 40 years. Over this period, I have watched with admiration and respect as Asma has taken on successive governments in her crusade for human rights. In the courts and on the streets of Pakistan, she has campaigned courageously for women and minorities targeted for their gender and their beliefs.

She has been in detention for her activism, and has stood up — all five feet of her — to the might of the Punjab police while demonstrating for the many causes she has supported over the years. For anybody to now suggest that she is somehow putting on an act to get attention is to insult the huge contribution she has made.

When I called her to ask for the source of her information about the death threat, she said if she named whoever had tipped her off, she would be putting the person’s life in grave danger. However, she confirmed that the information was from an impeccable source.

Given what we know of how our spooks behave, Asma’s decision to protect her informant is surely prudent. All too often, brave voices that have spoken up against the establishment have been permanently silenced. Saleem Shahzad’s brutal murder is still fresh in our memory. Many others have been beaten, kidnapped or threatened. More have been simply bribed.So why Asma, and why now? Here, I can only speculate. Perhaps her consistent demand for a dialogue with Baloch nationalists, and an end to the state-sponsored disappearances in that deeply troubled province, touched a raw nerve. Her staunch defence of Husain Haqqani, a bête noir of our generals, could be another reason. Or it could just be her gutsy attacks on the military’s constant interference in politics that annoyed somebody powerful.

A recent editorial in the Friday Times alerted us to the danger of the ISI taking over the upper echelons of the army.

According to the leader writer, the established practice had been for senior generals seconded to the intelligence service for a stint to be kept away from army command positions for fear of contamination. But after Gen Kayani moved to his present position of army chief from running the ISI, this deliberate policy of insulating the high command from cloak and dagger activity has broken down.

I am in no position to confirm this thesis, but it does make sense. And if it does, the implications for our security state are dire. As it is, our defence establishment commands the political, military, industrial and diplomatic high ground. While this overstretch has taken it far from its mandate, the encroachment of its intelligence outfit on mainstream policymaking is dangerous for civil society.

It is specially threatening for those who, like Asma Jahangir, have chosen to speak truth to power. As it is, the space for secular, liberal discourse has been shrinking steadily. Increasingly, Pakistani women and minorities are being marginalised, and those who stand with them are at risk. My old friend, Salmaan Taseer, paid with his life for his commitment to humanity and common decency.

Over the last quarter century, since Zia seized power, extremism has come to permeate every facet of society. In homes, schools, madressahs, offices, courts and TV studios, shrill and often violent manifestations of religiosity have taken hold. It seems that zealotry has taken the country by the jugular.

The fact that nobody is arrested and convicted for the many crimes committed against journalists and human rights activists casts a further shadow. With the state unwilling or unable to act against these faceless thugs, ordinary people have no recourse to justice. With the notable exception of the cases of those who have been disappeared allegedly by security forces, the judiciary is too preoccupied with high-profile political cases to pay much heed to the plight of citizens.

Asma Jahangir did not need to place her life in jeopardy by fighting for the weak and the dispossessed. She is comfortably off, and could have lived the lifestyle many upper class Pakistanis lead. But to her credit, she has chosen the more difficult and dangerous path, and we should respect her for it, rather than suspecting her motives.

Oh yes, before I close, could I ask whatever agency is trying to mess with my email account to please back off?

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.