“Everything is a risk in Pakistan: If you defend women, it’s a risk. If you defend non-Muslims, it’s a risk. If you discuss religion, it’s a risk. But you can’t really sit there like a vegetable in your own society. And I’m committed to that society… and I feel I need to turn around and speak as I should.”
– Asma Jahangir
The first ominous currents were felt when Fawad Chaudhry, hours away from his appearance as keynote speaker in one of the sessions, suddenly cancelled. It was via a tweet, no less. Perhaps we should have known.
“I was invited to the Asma Jahangir Conference,” the Federal Minister for Information & Broadcasting tweeted. “But I have been told that the conference is set to conclude with an absconding criminal’s speech. Obviously, this is akin to a mockery of the state and the constitution. I have excused myself from attending the conference.”
Each one of the missive’s 280 characters seemed to be quivering in righteous indignation – not even uttering the ‘heinous offender’s name, lest he be afforded a slight iota of undeserved dignity. In a supreme twist of irony that may have escaped the Information Minister’s notice, the theme of AJCONF21, i.e. this year’s Asma Jahangir Conference, happened to be “Challenges to Human Dignity”.
The AJCONF was instituted in 2018 as a tribute to Asma Jahangir, celebrating her legacy of activism for a free, democratic and just society – where human rights violations get no impunity, the marginalized and the vulnerable have access to justice, and minorities are not discriminated against because of their religion, gender or ethnicity.
Each year one of the country’s popular leaders is invited to the conference. In the first conference, it was the PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. In the second, it was former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani.
With each subsequent year since AJCONF has been steadily cementing itself as Pakistan’s definitive forum for essential discourse.
Munizae Jahangir – editor-in-chief of Voicepk – during the concluding session of the latest AJConf mentioned these aspects, which for Pakistanis have become nothing more than a wishful utopia.
“Pakistanis long to see a country where the press is free, where politics is free; where there is religious freedom…” she announced. “When Ali Wazir is in the parliament, not in jail; where there are no talks being held with our children’s murderers – rather there is justice; where there are pens in the hands of the Pukhtun children, not guns; (they long for there to be) economic and cultural relations with our neighbours, and not to support any elements of disharmony; where smaller provinces get their due rights, and no journalist or human rights defender is disappeared; the border should be open to those are peaceful, and no red carpets are laid out for war-mongers; the parents of the APS martyrs should be given due dignity – that is why we have called this conference Challenges to Human Dignity.”
Meanwhile, the undercurrent that was being felt, had slowly been roiling into a whirlpool that threatened to suck everything in its vicinity. It was a picture familiar to journalists.
A good two hours before the concluding session, cellular data services began causing problems.
When the video call connected, Sharif spoke only for about 15 minutes before we found out that the ‘cable had been cut’. But the show must go on. A telephone call was made and Sharif addressed the audience in audio-only.
When it comes to freedom of expression, Pakistan has a checkered history. Such a desperate move on part of the government only showed those present some of what plagues our country: the muzzling of free speech, intolerance for any opposition or dissent, and a disregard for an organic gathering – a people’s assembly.
Under Article 19 of the Constitution, free speech is a basic human right. This was freely implemented when an interview of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, was broadcast even after December 2019 when he was found guilty of high treason.
Many other things in the conference also did not sit well with those on top.
Former President SCBA, Ali Ahmed Kurd’s speech spread obvious unease as he openly criticized the judiciary, saying that ‘220 million people were being held hostage by a one general’. Kurd’s impassioned words inevitably set the note for the conference. Participants began giving vent to their feelings and ideas without any hesitation during their respective sessions, and a dialogue started.
Faultfinders will reduce the conference to these two incidents, and accuse it of ‘politicizing’ the agenda. Yet there was so much more happening.
There were people present from across the board – and every socio-economic class was represented. They sat at the same table discussing their problems with honesty and frankness. Each session also came up with possible resolutions to move forward.
Being a conference supported by the Supreme Court Bar Association and the Punjab Bar Council, there was a large representation of lawyers and judges.
Thirty judges from the lower judiciary and 10 from the higher judiciary were there including the former and the current Chief Justices of Pakistan. Around 600 lawyers arrived from all over the country, 40 per cent of whom were women. On both days the conference boasted 3000 attendees. Hundreds of women lawyers travelled from all over Pakistan, especially for the conference, from districts and remote areas of Sindh, Balochistan, and KP.
It was not just those from the legal profession. Students and youth activists also arrived in droves from as far as Rawalakot (AJK), Loralai (Balochistan), and Landi Kotal (KP).
People were amazed to find grassroots activists including Baba Jan and Manzoor Pashteen being present. To give them a platform was a very big deal indeed. Eminent political leaders given a session to talk about the woes of smaller provinces, including Taj Haider, Afrasiab Khattak, and Ayaz Latif Palejo showed that the conference did not limit itself to just mainstream issues.
The conference was also all-encompassing where religious representation was concerned. For the first time, representatives of the Hindu and Christian community sat in the same session as the chairperson for the Council for Islamic Ideology (CII) Qibla Ayaz. For the first time, a representative of the Ahmadi community was included in the discussion on extremism and its impact on minorities.
Apart from national issues, regional issues impacting Pakistan were also included in the conference. Speakers from Kashmir (both sides), Afghanistan, and India were invited. Representatives and dignitaries from the European Union, Canada, Germany, UK, Netherlands, the US and United Nations were present.
Even this did not sit well with the government it seems. Many of the participants were not given visas to come. This was, in particular, the case with the Indian speakers, and with Steven Butler, the Asia Pacific head of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). This is the second time Butler has been stopped from entering the country. The first time he had a visa but was sent back from the airport by this very government.
Several other issues were also part of the conference. In one of the sessions on the lack of implementation of the anti-rape legislation, it was discovered that none of the 34,000 cases registered had been investigated mainly because the police do not have enough resources.
In two panels held on freedom of the press and censorship, it was made evidently clear that journalists had been gagged for a long time now, and those who were responsible enjoyed absolute impunity.
The conference spoke about the state of the economy and how unequal distribution of wealth was leading to an increase in poverty and food insecurity. Renowned economists like Dr Kaiser Bengali, Dr Hafeez Pasha, Dr Shahid Kardar and Dr Ayesha Ghaus spoke about what kind of policies must be looked into to strengthen the GDP and upgrade people’s lives.
A bold talk on enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings was also held where local and foreign speakers gave ground realities and possible solutions. Out of 8122 cases till August 2021, in the COIED (commission for enforced disappearances) 2269 cases remain unresolved, while instances of disappearances keep rising.
Former senator Farhatullah Babar said a new law was in the pipeline where those who wanted to register a case reporting an enforced disappearance, would have to prove who the abductors were. If they were not able to prove then they would be facing 5 years of prison. He urged that this legislation must be resisted, as none would even be able to report such incidences.
So if the government was looking for controversy, there was enough to be trumped-up from any one of the panels.
But if it chose to see that the conference spoke to the thousands of people who had attended it, and the innumerable people who had watched it online, it would have seen that the issues it raised were those that were being felt by all since a very long time now.
As for agendas, there was only one agenda of this conference: to represent all voices, especially of marginalized communities. In such a gathering, therefore, everything should have been possible – even a speech by Nawaz Sharif.