Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Dissent from established narratives has always proved useful for states and societies to correct their rotten traditions. However, most people find it difficult to question certain beliefs, ideologies, or narratives they have been continuously fed.

The history of the world proves that it was dissenting people like Galileo, Copernicus, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr, and many others like them who not only changed the way people thought but also were able to bring changes to their societies and the world.

In countries like Pakistan where dissent is considered a crime, most dissident journalists, intellectuals and human-rights activists find themselves at the receiving end, as not only do the propaganda machinery of the state and mullahs work around the clock against them, but most ordinary citizens have been brainwashed by that same propaganda to perceive such people as traitors or agents of Western powers who want to destroy the social and political fabric of their country.

A state where dissent is not allowed or can cost one’s career or even his life can resemble a graveyard, as living societies reflect pluralism. Different opinions and ideologies are respected in the civilized countries even if they are not endorsed by the authorities or if the general masses are unaware of the invisible dynamics at work in the corridors of power.

While talking about dissenting journalists and intellectuals, one has to give credit to Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, who faced the wrath of the invisible forces in a fabricated case called memogate as the chief justice at the time, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, left no stone unturned to find a way to convict him of treason.

Haqqani after resigning from his post settled in the US, and since then has worked with think-tanks and provided a platform to dissenting journalists and intellectuals called South Asians Against Terrorism & for Human Rights (SAATH Forum).

This forum usually points out the flaws in Pakistani foreign policies and internal politics that are manipulated by the invisible forces, and also advocates for the rights of minorities and women.

Since criticism and questioning the established narratives of the state and mullahs are considered crimes in Pakistan, the SAATH Forum is considered a body of traitors who are working for a foreign agenda to destabilize the country. From digital media to mainstream media there is a non-stop campaign against the SAATH Forum for raising its voice.

On Sunday the forum held a virtual conference about enforced disappearances, state-sanctioned killings, and diminishing democracy and raised concerns that repression in Pakistan is increasing amid the Covid-19 crisis.

The virtual conference was attended by prominent journalists, intellectuals and activists from Pakistan. The participants who were connected virtually from across the globe included former senator Afrasiab Khattak, former member of parliament Farahnaz Ispahani, MP and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement leader Mohsin Dawar, activists Gul Bukhari, Gulalai Ismail and Annie Zaman, journalists Taha Siddiqui and Marvi Sirmed, and intellectuals Kamran Shafi, Saghir Shaikh and Rasool Mohammad.

These participants are often disliked by the state, the mullahs and the far-right conservative section of society for their outspoken criticism on the policies and narratives of the state. As SAATH was airing its virtual conference on Twitter so people in Pakistan could watch it live, first the Internet became slow, and then the forum’s Twitter account was restricted. That raised the suspicion among SAATH members and its followers in Pakistan that the authorities had deliberately intervened in order to censor the proceedings.

Though no statement from the authorities in Pakistan has been given yet, the government should clarify if it was done deliberately or if there was a legitimate problem with the Internet. However, the question arises, who restricted access to the SAATH Twitter handle, and why was it restored soon after the virtual conference was over?

Addressing the conference, Haqqani was of the view that the post-Covid-19 environment will only aggravate Pakistan’s crisis. “Instead of persisting with old, failed policies, a new approach must be adopted,” he said. “It should be based on tolerance … democracy, genuine federalism.”  

Afrasyaab Khattak raised the issue of “clandestine efforts by the security establishment to roll back the provincial autonomy provided by the 18th Constitutional Amendment.”

“We must resist the onslaught against democracy, and especially the 18th Amendment. Since 2014, there has been a creeping coup, and going after the amendment is part of that agenda,” Khattak said.

Former parliamentarian and author Farahnaz Ispahani raised the issue of violence against and perpetual oppression of minorities in Pakistan.

“The minorities in Pakistan are struggling even more due to Covid-19. We must focus our efforts on providing them relief. They are the most vulnerable group in the country in this pandemic,” Ispahani said. 

Mohsin Dawar of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) was of the view that political parties in Pakistan are compromised and that is the reason the establishment is successfully manipulating the political discourse.

Exiled journalist Taha Siddiqi raised the issue of the recent killing of Pakistani journalist Sajjad Hussain, who died in Sweden under mysterious circumstances. 

SAATH coordinator and columnist Mohammad Taqi said: “We are raising our voice since the situation in Pakistan is quite bleak. There is a lot of intellectual suffocation.”

If one goes through the whole event and what the speakers said, one will find nothing that can be termed treasonous or a threat to the country. In fact, these dissidents, most of whom are living abroad in self-imposed exile because of the threat to their lives in Pakistan, actually pointed out the flaws in the current system of the country and presented a different perspective and solutions.

Nowhere in a modern state are different perspectives or criticizing the narratives of the state considered a crime. In fact, the saner elements in the Pakistani power corridors can see this event as largely positive and can address the flaws in their narratives and policies.

No country or state can ever be weakened by dissidents or by counter-narratives; it actually is the fear of being criticized and being held responsible for wrongdoings that compel authoritarian regimes to call dissidents traitors and to create such a toxic atmosphere that they have to leave and live the rest of their lives in exile.

It is not a secret that democracy in Pakistan is being managed by the establishment, or that there are extrajudicial killings like the Sahiwal massacre, or state protection of alleged extrajudicial killers like Rao Anwar. Enforced disappearances remain an issue in Pakistan, while the rights of minorities and women are abused every now and then. 

The mullahs continue to exploit the masses in the name of religion with the backing of the state, while very ordinary writers and TV anchors are presented as geniuses to the masses, which ultimately has only contributed to the demise of journalism, literature, and intellectualism in the country.

So the question arises, how can pointing out these flaws can be termed a foreign agenda or a treasonous act, as it is the duty of a journalist or an intellectual to offer critiques for the betterment of the country?

Pakistan does not belong to the elite sitting in power and it should be learned by the authorities that maintaining silence when the country is going in the wrong direction or something wrong is happening to the political and social fabrics of society is unacceptable for an objective journalist or a true intellectual who wants positive change.

Those who hold the authority to declare dissidents traitors need to understand that self-delusion is the path toward self-destruction, while accepting reality and correcting mistakes are the only way forward. 

As far as dissenting from the established narratives and pointing out the flaws in society is concerned, it is very rare and very few can do it for the sake of their countrymen, or of the country. As Albert Einstein said, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are incapable of forming such opinions.”

It is time for the authorities in Pakistan to try to break the ice and listen to dissenting journalists and intellectuals instead of smearing them as traitors or foreign agents. In the end, it is not the narratives of the state or the mullahs but the country that really matters.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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