Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and a regional director of the Hudson Institute. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and co-founder of the SAATH Forum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While Maryam Nawaz is set to start a decisive movement for the supremacy of democracy by addressing the first public gathering of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) against the government this coming Friday, liberal and progressive voices have put their support behind her father Nawaz Sharif’s battle against the undemocratic forces.

The fifth annual conference of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH) was held on Saturday and Sunday. SAATH is an independent think-tank co-founded by the former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, Husain Haqqani, and Mohammad Taqi, a columnist and medical doctor working in the US.

This year’s conference was held virtually because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Prominent politicians including Afrasyab Khattak, Bushra Gohar, Farhatullah Babar and Mohsin Dawar along with activists such as Marvi Sirmed and intellectuals such as Kamran Shafi, Rubina Greenwood, Tahira Jabeen and Farhanaz Ispahani, along with many others, spoke on this occasion.

It is pertinent to note that SAATH is always perceived as working on the foreign agenda by the military establishment and the current government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Prime Minister Imran Khan in a recent interview accused Husain Haqqani of destroying the image of the country and misguiding the youth of the country.

But contrary to such claims, both Haqqani and the SAATH Forum are only putting forth alternative and dissenting views, and had the authorities in Pakistan tried to engage the intellectuals at this forum in a debate they could have rectified their mistakes and could have benefited from the participants’ observations and views. 

This year, the conference focused on the hybrid martial law and human-rights violations in Pakistan.

Senior politician Afrasyab Khattak told the conference, “Pakistan is under unannounced martial law.” He further stated that this is the most dangerous martial law in Pakistan because it has “vulgarized and distorted constitutional institutions.” 

Khattak, who is a strong critic of the establishment, also said, “The current military regime is delegitimizing political institutions, going to the extent that intelligence agencies direct members of parliament when to attend sessions and when not to turn up to vote.”

Haqqani noted that Imran Khan had recently publicly accused him and SAATH of weakening Pakistan’s international standing.

“Pakistan’s international standing is being lost due to its policies of encouraging extremism and suppressing freedom, not due to the activism of those fighting for human rights,” Haqqani said, adding that the military should “stop seeing us an enemy.”

Former parliamentarian Bushra Gohar was of the view that young Pakistanis, lawyers and women have started challenging the status quo in Pakistan and the repressive regime cannot prevail forever.

Gohar also questioned secret talks between Pakistan’s military leaders and the US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, over the future of Afghanistan, which has serious implications for Pakistan’s Pashtuns. She called for the demilitarization of the Pashtun region.

Mohsin Dawar, a member of the National Assembly and the leading figure in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), said the regime was trying to bring the Taliban back to power and to break the bond between the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line.

Meanwhile the coordinator of the SAATH Forum, Dr Taqi, was of the view that army rule had taken Pakistan “from one disaster to the other as the narrative of patriotism has been framed around the army and those who do not fit [the] army’s parameters are deemed rebellious, treasonous and even blasphemous.”

Former ambassador to Cuba Kamran Shafi, who is also a retired military officer, said: “The higher ranks of the army must realize that a truly elected government must be in place to bring Pakistan from the brink where the current regime has brought it.”

Pakistan Peoples Party Senator Farhatullah Babar was of the view that a “creeping coup” in Pakistan is the result of the military trying to protect its “corporate economic interests,” which “might not be protected in a federal and democratic system.” Babar further said that “in their hearts, Pakistan’s generals do not accept the country’s constitution.”

He also said that relations between Pakistan and India could be changed and if China and India can have trade relations despite their conflicts, why can’t Pakistan and India?

According to Babar, the hybrid regime is fighting a war against the people of Pakistan by curbs on media and freedom of expression, non-governmental organizations, and civil society, and using militant outfits like Tehreek-e-Labbail Pakistan (TLP), as was witnessed during the Faizabad sit-in.

This annual conference of SAATH was not given coverage by the media in Pakistan and as usual, the dissenting views of the participants of this forum will be portrayed as treasonous by the hybrid regime and by many of the journalists and TV anchors who are happy not to raise the questions to the powerful quarters and simply do not bother to think that their intellectual dishonesty has cost the country a lot.

One wonders what is treasonous about forums like this and how this is damaging Pakistan’s image in the globe. After all, the world is not living in the stone age and it is seeing what has been happening to the country since the first military regime of General Ayub Khan.

From enforced disappearances to the shrinking space of freedom of expression to the undermining of democracy and democratic leaders, it has been an open truth, and anyone who is not biased can easily understand that a country’s image is not hurt by dissenting views.

In fact, the best way to boost the image of the country is to let democracy prevail and to respect the constitution. There is nothing any of the speakers at last weekend’s conference said that was against the constitution of Pakistan or against a better future for the country.

Perhaps it is those who do not want to change their habit of not listening to the truth and repeating the old mistakes of suppressing dissenting voices who are not doing anything good for the future of the country.

The SAATH Forum at the end of the conference also welcomed the recent formation of the PDM, an alliance of opposition political parties, and expressed the hope that they would “resist the Pakistani establishment’s totalitarian project and not just bargain for a share in power.”

This announcement came at a time when Nawaz Sharif has launched a campaign for the restoration of democracy, and it is perhaps the first time he has had the backing of the liberal and progressive voices of the country.

Those who are terming this forum treasonous and damaging for the country’s image should ask themselves why the majority of dissident journalists, intellectuals and activists have to opt for exile in other countries and why these kinds of debates cannot be held in Pakistan. 

In a society where dissident views are considered treasonous and where the mullahs can accuse anyone of blasphemy for questioning rotten traditions, it is not the dissenting voices but those smearing them who are damaging the future of the country. 

Dissenting views from the rotten narratives of foreign policy, political interference of establishment and influencing a social fabric that is controlled by mullahs and their allies are neither unpatriotic nor they are baseless. As we have seen how Pakistan’s social and political fabrics have been destroyed since the Islamization of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, there is no sign that the powers that be are ready to learn from the mistakes of the past.

To differ from the ideologies of the powers that be is not a crime, and that is what dissident journalists and intellectuals are doing in order to bring sanity into Pakistani society. 

As the US president Abraham Lincoln said, “If there is anything that links the human to the divine, it is the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.”

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.