Pakistani Free Speech Hero of the Year 2018: Manzoor Pashteen

Source: Rahat Dar/EPA/The Guardian

In a year that has been widely recognized as one of the darkest, if not the worst ever, in terms of free speech in Pakistan, only someone who could take on the state could be the most important free speech hero.

As Pakistan becomes more and more of a police station since the Taliban insurgency and the War on Terror, the state is doubling down on authoritarian security measures. However, in the name of national security, you will often find the voice of political dissidents suppressed.  Such has been the case with Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement is a protest political movement against the active racial profiling against the Pashtuns in Pakistan as well as the missing persons abducted in the aftermath of the Waziristan operations carried out by the Pakistan military. Perhaps this movement would not have gathered such spontaneous support across Pakistan had the discrimination against Pashtuns not reached such pan-national scale. The boiling point came with the extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, which triggered nationwide outrage from the Pashtun community, except for the ones too uncomfortably close with the state establishment.

Manzoor Pashteen is important of perhaps all the free speech heroes in Pakistan due to the influence he has been able to exert in a very short time and with no resources at all. And he managed to get under the skin of the Punjabi establishment, a sign of which was the state-backed propaganda against the movement on the mainstream media. The Punjab government even featured his image in an advisory against terrorists. And such state behavior ensued while no action was taken against the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, which made openly rebellious statements and perhaps contributed to pushing the limits of free speech in Pakistan itself.

The PTM is a completely grassroots movement and primarily making use of the social media, the PTM leadership rose and rallied its supporters and sympathizers and now even have two MPs in the parliament. Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, whose names were recently included in the Exit Control List for a while, have been just as vocal about the issues. However, they lack the central attention that Pashteen has been able to garner with his unlikely charisma. His trademark Pashteen cap has become a symbol of defiance and resistance among the PTM supporters.

ANP veterans and secular progressives Senator Afrasiab Khattak and former MP Bushra Gohar were suspended from party membership due to their sympathy for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and outspoken rhetoric against the military establishment. They are doing their bit to make the PTM grievances more mainstream, while also sending a message how the movement is larger than partisan agenda, considering how the state has been portraying Manzoor Pashteen as more or less treasonous. Whether his campaign will be any more effective than it is, considering how politically passive the rest of Pakistan is becoming under a strict suppression of dissent, it is yet to be seen.

It was not just the pro-PTM lawmakers who had a hard time in terms of expulsions and blacklistings on the Exit Control List. Award-winning human rights activists were not immune from the penalty too. Gulalai Ismail, an ethnic Pashtun who has been recognized by the Government of France on her work on her NGO project “Aware Girls” was the biggest victim in the anti-PTM witchhunt by the state. A girl who used to be a hero is now interrogated by the FIA on arrival and her name has been put on the Exit Control List.

In a year that saw major assaults on free speech in Pakistan, there is no shortage of heroes here. The Pakistani journalist, in general, suffered a very difficult year in 2018. This year marked the violation of the boundaries of the Karachi Press Club, something which had never even occurred in the darkest days under General Zia according to Ghazi Salahuddin. Journalists Taha S. Siddiqui and Gul Bukhari have been two major names as well. Taha was assaulted and chased by armed men in civilian clothing but who obviously had the state’s agenda to carry out against journalists who were doing inconvenient reporting. Before his name could have been put on the Exit Control List, he managed to make a safe exit to France. The clearly pro-PML-N Gul Bukhari, who was also abducted briefly by similar mysterious people, has been vocal against the military establishment and the incumbent PTI government. Both of them are still vocal against the state establishment on social media.

Source: The Daily Times

Another great free speech hero that cannot be commended enough not only for his contribution to free speech in Pakistan but for his service in general to humanity is Saif-ul-Malook, the lawyer of Asia Bibi. Asia Bibi was sentenced to death according to the It was his tireless efforts and advocacy that eventually helped overturn the death sentence of Asia Bibi and paved way for the Supreme Court to acquit her of the alleged charges. Now considering how hospitable Pakistan is to any such citizen, it is not a surprise that Saif-ul-Malook had to leave Pakistan and has now reportedly taken temporary asylum in the Netherlands.

Ali Raza Abidi, the former MQM MP, who has been openly critical of the incumbent government and was also estranged with the MQM leadership, also got silenced by unknown forces this Christmas. His assassination is a reminder that individual thought and secular liberal minds remain to be an endangered and threatened species in this country.

Finally, probably the greatest free speech hero we will ever have passed away earlier this year. Asma Jahangir who will remain to be the guiding beacon for people pursuing

As long as Pakistan remains a battleground for free speech, we will continue to see such obvious and unlikely heroes emerge.

Read about the Pakistan free speech hero for the year 2017 here.

The Pul-e-Jawan Experience: The Pakistan Country Forum Event April 11-12, 2012

Introduction Brief (Source: Furhan Hussain for Pul-e-Jawan)

Pul-e-Jawan is a peace initiative and a discussion forum covering India, Pakistan and Afghanistan peace and security issues. I learned about an event of the forum being organized by Bytes 4 All, an organization dedicated to internet freedom and online privacy in Pakistan, and had a chance to participate. The event that was held on April 11 and April 12, 2012 in Islamabad, covered various aspects of regional peace and security through the participation and opinions of the analyst-turned-Foreign Office advisor Mosharraf Zaidi, analyst and scholar Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa and the representatives of the independent US institutions monitoring aid in Pakistan including Nadia Naviwala of the US Institute of Peace, Danny Cutherell of Center for Global Development and Pakistani-American entrepreneur Awais Khan of American Pakistan Foundation. Indu Nepal briefly joined on live stream from Afghanistan to explain what the Pul-e-Jawan forum was about.

In one of the sessions, Pakistan’s foreign policy strategy was discussed. The most important piece of information was the fact that Pakistan had started engaging with all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan instead of just Pashtuns. Some found it hard to believe but it nevertheless was something positive. Pakistan’s approach of increasing trade with India and other nations was also discussed. A journalist from Waziristan asked about the compensation for the “Pakistani citizens” becoming victims of the war campaigns in the tribal areas from the Pakistani government. It was found that Pakistani government was largely clueless about the idea, let alone the thought of considering those casualties Pakistani citizens. Criticism of the alleged Saudi petrodollars funding terrorism was a positive. We also learned that people of Pakistan did not vote for internet freedom in 2008, causing a momentary outrage but life went on.

Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa’s session was a candid discussion primarily about civil liberties and national security, also including the state of affairs of Pakistan vis-à-vis its neighbors and the war on terror. Most of the discussion revolved around the internal affairs of Pakistan, the role of the military establishment and religious extremism. She discussed how the perceived freedom of Pakistani media was an illusion and how the Pakistani political left has been eradicated out of existence. She talked about how she had been criticized for being anti-military and explained that criticizing military does not mean that you advocate putting it out of existence. The highest point of her talk was when she mentioned that she decided to return to Pakistan since the battle for better civil rights and democracy would be best fought from within the country. She considered the thinking ones a minority in the country and was not as enthusiastic about supporting civil liberties over national security as your average hawk would have thought.

To tell you the truth, I personally had very little interest in listening to the US officials because I am not really thrilled about the subject of aid anyway. It always sounds pretty meaningless to me in terms of politics, but if it can be of help for underprivileged people, great. Also because they would not have had answers to any of the questions that I wanted to ask from anyone coming with US aid proposals and it was therefore absolutely pointless to ask anything. However, a lot of participants were very interested in the discussion and contributed enthusiastically to it. I couldn’t help but observe a few things which I am sure would be making US aid officials and the US government in general sick to their stomachs. I have noticed that some of the participants were literally crucifying the US for the uselessness of the aid initiatives due to the corruption in the Pakistani society and government and yet were complaining that not enough aid was being sent and not utilized on better projects. Now isn’t that unreasonable? What the hell are they supposed to do?

A journalist from Waziristan was talking about the need for investment in the tribal areas as unemployment was turning young men to militancy and probably what we refer to as terrorism. Another friend asked them about the lack of US contribution to Baluchistan. While both the gentlemen were spot on and I cannot recall with certainty if the FATA journalist asked them this particular question, but to answer the general mindset, I cannot understand how aid in itself could end unemployment and create industries in the region, which was actually the aim of some of the questions put to those officials. Perhaps the gentleman from Waziristan was referring to direct foreign investment, so that is what he talked about, it only came as a feedback for the personnel on how aid was really changing their lives. I think this kind of demand should be forwarded to an official of the Government of Pakistan instead of aid monitoring officials. I think it is about time that Pakistanis should realize that it is economic growth instead of the US aid that could really get them anywhere, especially when it comes to earning respect among the nations of the world. At least it will keep their government from being obsessive-compulsive beggars.

The thing that I liked the most about the US officials session was their honesty about the aid process. They admitted that the government processes were slow on the both sides, referring to the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which is actually in jeopardy overPakistan’s shady role in the Osama Ben Laden episode, but maybe not due to the dual nature of Pakistan-America relations. Though I do wonder how the military aid gets processed so quickly. They explained that if an NGO receives too much aid, it is most likely to go corrupt. Cutherell stated that aid will never solve Pakistan’s issues and Pakistanis have to take control of the things themselves. Common sense will tell you that as well, but Pakistanis are hooked to any kind of aid anyway. Too lazy and incompetent to earn money themselves perhaps. Awais Khan was suggesting people to vote in a better way, at which point I was forced to unsuccessfully ask who we should vote for, since I really cannot make up my mind. That was the end of that.

On the second day, MP Bushra Gohar of the ANP spoke about the achievements of the women’s caucus of parliamentarians for better legislation for women’s rights and acting in a united manner beyond party lines. She started the presentation with an ode to the active social role played by Pakistani women in all fields of life with a sentimental montage repeatedly focusing on Benazir Bhutto’s arrival in Pakistan after her self-imposed exile in 2007. The Tina Sani song was instantly criticized for its rather patriarchal lyrics, referring to the Anchal or the Chador, by the witty Tazeen who was interviewing Gohar, since all women do not wear it. Gohar apparently was one step ahead instantly explaining that she had the same problem and that the lyricist had also taken the criticism in a positive light. I personally found the lyrics overly sentimental and somewhat touching, but that’s poetry. Maybe it was the montage. You can check the song and the video for yourself, not that it’s important.

She pointed out how women parliamentarians took an initiative when they were left out of the Constitutional Standing Committee. The rest of the time was spent on defending the position of the Awami National Party on various fronts. She was asked why the tribal areas have been neglected by the ANP Government to which she responded that the FATA has been included in the KP province in the ANP constitution, apparently unlike the Pakistani constitution. She was spot on when she said that FATA has been reduced to a strategic space and its people strategic assets by the Pakistani states and should take a stand for their rights. In my opinion, that is where the polarized Pakistani nation is at one. She also mentioned that she had received death threats and acid attack threats from the Taliban for her views and even for her appearance and attire. Had the pleasure of briefly meeting her, a very intelligent and articulate woman. She is the kind of representative you would want to vote for any day, without getting impressed by her party much.

MP Bushra Gohar at the Pul-e-Jawan event (Source: Furhan Hussain for Pul-e-Jawan)

To my delight, and of everyone else’s if I may take the liberty to say that, Nabiha Meher Sheikh took her time out to conduct an excellent workshop on Critical Thinking and Cognitive Biases. This was important because some of the participants were realizing what biases meant for the very first time, if I may not be considered too biased for stating that. After the initiation, the participants were divided in 5 groups, each required to present and justify a local example of Groupthink. A couple of groups gave the example of the 1971 war, one of the lawyers’ movement and my group gave the example of Pakistani nationalists’ criticism of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Oscar winning documentary.

FATA Journalist Ihsan Dawar at the event (Source: Furhan Hussain for Pul-e-Jawan)

The stars of the show and the center of attention among participants remained to be two gentlemen from the beautiful tribal land of Waziristan, which has been abandoned by Pakistan ever since the independence. At least in my books. The radio journalists Ihsan Dawar and Umer Daraz Khan stole the show through their input about the situation in the tribal areas and bombarding all the speakers with stinging questions about the role of Pakistan in the tribal areas. They also gave a pretty hard time to the US officials and enjoyed a fair bit of preference as far as opportunities for questions were concerned, for which I admire the organizers. Gulalai Ismail was another prominent participant who gets my admiration for her Aware Girls project in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Participation of activists from the Hazara community and the Sindhi Hindu community was also something worth noticing and the event encompassed the diversity in Pakistan pretty well.

Before taking my leave of the event, I and my group proposed a new social media campaign idea which would involve online petition messages from the citizens of Pakistan and India to their governments for withdrawing troops from the Siachen glacier in order to end a pointless and bloody conflict, which was causing more deaths due to the horrific living conditions instead of the battle. The campaign is meant to go beyond just being an online petition, as it would constantly pursue the Siachen conflict, as it is often easily forgotten, and would remind India and Pakistan of what they are doing to their people.

All in all, it was a great experience and learned quite a bit from it and made a few friends. Other than that, still trying to develop something a bit more meaningful and constructive out of the experience at the Pul-e-Jawan forum.