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Human Rights´ Struggle in Pakistan A tribute to Asma Jahangir

Overseas Progressive Pakistanis (OPP) held an event on the 17th of February, at Vrije University to mark the 1st death anniversary of renowned lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jehangir. The program started with an introduction to her, as a staunch supporter and activist for human rights, followed by a brief introduction to OPP.


The program formally began with an overview of the United Nations declaration of human rights, to provide some context to the discussion from the perspective of the worldwide human community. The declaration guarantees amongst many others, right to life, liberty and security.; the right to property, freedom of thought, conscience, and practice of religion and freedom to change religion; peaceful assembly, and right to social security. In this backdrop, a discussion on the state of human rights in Pakistan was initiated, by introducing the three panellists.


Suzanne Koster is a researcher and Pakistan analyst for Dutch media. She has been a correspondent for international Dutch media and was situated in Pakistan from 2005 to 2012. Marjan … is a psychologist of politics, culture and religion and her focus area is the relationship between individuals and their socio-political context, with a particular interest in Pakistan, Kashmir, India, Ethiopia and Somalia. She is a frequent visitor to the region. Khalid Farooqi is a multimedia journalist, academic and activist, long associated with Asma Jahangir through the Women’s Action Forum, and his activism against Gen Zia’s Martial law. He’s now involved with the NGO, Progressive Thoughts.


Suzanne chose article 26 of the UN declaration of human rights related to the right of education, to speak about, in Pakistan’s context. She started off by narrating her trip to Ziarat Balochistan where she went in 2005 and was told by locals that despite them wanting to send their children to school, schools usually don’t have teachers coming regularly. She pointed out that then 47% of boys and 51% of girls were out of school in Pakistan, with enrolment dropping drastically at the middle and high school level. Education spending is 2.7% of GDP in Pakistan which is the lowest in the region with Afghanistan spending more than 3%. The military budget, however, was increased 20% for the next fiscal year, excluding military hardware and pension bill.  For the money that is allocated, it often goes underspent. And with spent money, a lot of functioning schools are ghost schools, with the local politicians threatening repercussions for the bureaucracy for taking action against teachers who don’t show up at schools. Suzanne cautioned about how lack of education leads to an unaware society looking up to leadership in disruptive elements, the kind who issue fatwas of blasphemy against the likes of Asia Bibi, or murder scholars like Dr Farooq who challenge the propagation of a violent narrative in the name of religion. She ended on an optimistic note by saying how 7 million women have joined the workforce in the last 10 years, because of the courage that education gives them to challenge traditional roles.


Marjan talked about her recent visit to Pakistan where she was met with an environment of uncertainty but also hopeful about a future changing for the better in Pakistan. She attended a conference on Kashmir in December 2018, which was held to discuss the UN human rights violation report on Kashmir. She mentioned how think tanks in Europe have been quite consistently putting forward this impression of there existing a dualism between the military and political leadership in Pakistan, with the civilian government having little control over critical foreign policy issues including relations with India. During her visit though, she sensed this hope which was quite discernible amongst the people on the streets.


Following Marjan’s impressions of hope in Pakistan, Khalid Hameed Farooqi started off by asserting the need to stay hopeful. He talked about his long association with Asma Jahangir which spanned more than 25 years. He said how she was always a strong advocate of civilian supremacy in political matters even if most people around her would argue for the opposite. She continued her struggle and became such a towering personality that despite her very vocal views against the powers-to-be, she could not be touched. She had a political understanding of the system, which she used to engage instead of confronting, even with the odds stacked against her. The following part of his talk focused more on journalism in Pakistan which he opined was undergoing the worst curbs in history, with half of the work not being allowed to publish and thousands of journalists out of jobs. Information ministry puts curbs on the independent operation of media. Commenting on the atmosphere of hope in the country that Marjan pointed out, Khalid Farooqi asserted that hope is also managed by those who manipulate propagation of news that suits their interests, sometimes promoting contradictory views within a short period of time.


A Q&A session followed the first part of the program. It was pointed out by one audience member that the UN resolution on Kashmir that Marjan referred to in her talk, was not supported by Pakistan either because it called for an investigation of human rights abuses on both sides of the Line of Control. While agreeing with that assertion, Marjan insisted that the importance of a roadmap for peace in Kashmir which takes along all stakeholders needs to be realised. Suzanne Koster was asked how her study links with Asma Jahangir’s mission to which she mentioned the database that was set up by the Human Rights Commission, and how something could also be set up for educational facilities in Pakistan, to test widely held assumptions against evidence.


A question about the deteriorating human rights situation in Balochistan was also asked. Marjan opined that different parts of Pakistan cannot be discussed in isolation from the geopolitical context of the region. Khalid Farooqi emphasised on how the Baloch struggle is divided in its objectives, with respected nationalists now members of parliament and some sardars while protesting against the high handedness of the central government, still wished to remain in the federation. He also mentioned how there were credible reports of Indian involvement in Balochistan, whereas he himself condemned all human rights abuses but was for a constitutional settlement of the problem. Suzzane, while commenting on the impression that Balochistan is much less discussed in Pakistan compared to Kashmir pointed out the inaccessibility of Balochistan, where permits are required and any reporting contrary to state views is immediately termed treasonous. Also, as a journalist, it was difficult to create viewership for news related to Balochistan. Answering another related question, she talked about the “mass indoctrination” which makes people put the blame for conflicts within the country on India. Khalid Farooqi, however, was quick to point out that Pakistanis have been protesting against state repression and have had to leave the country because of their confrontation with the state.


Another audience member pointed out how today protests against human rights violations are more and more fragmented in Pakistan with everyone looking out for their own community, almost signalling the demise of the federation. Khalid Farooqi pointed out that federation was weakened when East Pakistan gained independence, with some in the western side of the country relieved that the flood relief efforts required almost every year for East Pakistan wouldn’t be needed anymore. There was a cultural split between Sindh and Punjab with Sindh being more secular and Punjab, the heart of the federation being more religious. Suzanne said how the strengths of the federation can be perceived differently. Manzoor Pashteen, the founder of PTM, has never once distanced himself from his Pakistani identity. Another factor compounding this fragmentation could be the size of the Punjab province which houses more than 52% of the population, not making it necessary for the Punjab based political parties to seek support outside of the province.


One audience member commented that genuine human rights struggle should not be reduced to geopolitics. Marjan contended that geopolitics enables a realistic analysis of the situation, pointing to feasible solutions. Geopolitical consideration is not meant to deny the real issues people face on the ground but an honest assessment of the geopolitical context can help in finding solutions.


There was a question also about the status of religious minorities in the country. Khalid Farooqi mentioned how the government had an obligation to protect minorities, and it is not in the interests of the government to hurt religious minorities. It is more a poison within the society which needs to be dealt with. On the issue of Ahmadis whose religious practice is curtailed by the constitution itself, an audience member referring to the recent appointment and then removal of an Ahmadi economist to the Economic Advisory Council commented that the government needs to mould public opinion in this regard, instead of buckling under pressure.


Concluding the event, it was mentioned how a country of millions of people is bound to have millions of problems but hope can be created by each individual playing his/her own role, instead of just looking up to the government to deliver.

Watch the Event

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