The two-day Asma Jahangir Conference last Saturday and Sunday quite unobtrusively developed into a people’s assembly. Each of the scores of speakers offered a few words by way of tribute to Asma Jahangir and then started telling the audience what is wrong with Pakistan, who is responsible for it and how it can be corrected.

The spirit of proceedings, a conscious effort to look at the broader picture and avoid airing personal/group grievances, could be felt during the concluding session. It was good to hear the PTI representative, Munazza Hasan, talking of women’s empowerment as a political imperative. Maryam Aurangzeb called for a second charter of democracy, paid tribute to Benazir Bhutto and referred to Nawaz Sharif’s tribulation only in passing. Yousuf Raza Gilani of the PPP recalled what he did as prime minister and lamented the present government’s reliance on bad laws to suppress the opposition. He only referred to Asif Ali Zardari’s efforts to strengthen parliament by shedding some of the president’s powers and avoided mentioning the cases against him.

The leaders of the mainstream parties displayed politicians’ capacity to accept criticism. They sat quietly when Munizae Jahangir stated that Pakistan’s politicians forget human rights when they are in power and discover them only when they are out of office. They sat as silently as they had done earlier when reminded that the fetters on their legs had been forged by themselves.

The conference confirmed the fact that a good number of politicians, experts in various disciplines, social activists and human rights defenders had been looking for a forum to vent their feelings. They jumped on the platform offered by Asma Jahangir Foundation, AGHS and the Pakistan Bar Council as it promised to meet their expectations. Further, they found the environment free from the fear that has robbed them of their ability to speak and conditioned them to suffer all kinds of indignities and oppression without protest. And the agenda was broad enough to allow an exchange of views on a variety of themes that are affecting the people’s lives and threaten the lives of the coming generations.

After the honourable judges of superior courts, judges and lawyers from Britain and Ireland and the leaders of the diplomatic corps — the Netherlands had specially sent their human rights ambassador — given the conference a high-profile start, a panel of prominent media persons lost no time in denouncing the rule by censorship that is evident all around. Their anger had been whetted by the authorities’ decision to deny entry to Steve Butler of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists.

The large gathering had also been infuriated by the demonstration of petty-mindedness that is the hallmark of South Asian states, as demonstrated in the denial of visas to eminent leaders of the Indian civil society, such as Syeda Hameed and Tapan Bose. The audience was further incensed by the disclosure that the black list of foreigners who cannot be allowed to enter Pakistan has several thousand names on it. There was no guarantee that this list had not been as whimsically drawn up as the Exit Control List. And Butler had come armed with a valid visa issued by a Pakistan embassy. The government received what it had asked for.

In the session on rule of law Justice Faez Isa gave a keynote address on the need to respect the constitution and constitutionalism, and his address was followed by a frank exposé of the myth of rule of law in Pakistan.

Leaders of the Balochistan National Party (Mengal), the Awami National Party, PPP and the Pakistan Awami Party poured out their sorrows and frustration at the persistent denial of their rights and asked for nothing more than respect for the Constitution and implementation of the 18th Amendment. Many in the audience had never heard the stories told by representatives of the oppressed communities.

At the session on Fata and its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa a call to establish civilian rule over the tribal lands rose loud and clear. It was noted that instead of allowing the tribal people the rights available to the KP population attempts had been made to push the latter into the disadvantaged tribal society.

At another session the curse of inequality was graphically presented and the huge losses caused by foolishly generous exemptions from taxation exposed. The economists were afraid of telling the whole truth. Another point made was that inequality was caused by the system’s structure and the state had little interest in safeguarding the people’s rights. The only way out was by creating a new state (assuming that a state had been crafted after the British withdrawal).

The human rights crisis in India-held Jammu and Kashmir received due priority, and the sessions on women’s struggle for their rights and their role in legal profession, children’s entitlements, shrinking of space for civil society organisations too were lively and matters were dealt with in a forthright manner.

It was noted that sessions on issues that touched on the subjects of democracy and political freedoms attracted the largest audiences and young men and women outnumbered grey-haired participants. Perhaps the most enthusiastic participants were the students who came in large numbers.

While what was said was important, equally important was the tone of speeches and discussions. There was no wild resort to vulgar expletives nor crude attacks on dissenters.

Perhaps the most important message delivered by the Asma Jahangir Conference to whoever is listening is that to be able to overcome its crises and move forward the state must have a civilised discourse with the citizens. There is no issue that cannot be resolved through a fair debate nor can there be any issue that the people through their own wisdom cannot resolve. No single initiative can enable the people of Pakistan to abandon their culture of submission to whoever wields power, but if the effort to awaken the masses to their inherent dignity and their inalienable rights continues they should not fail to take destiny into their own hands.

 

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2019