Pakistan’s Liberals, Progressives, Nationalists Trying to Find a way amid repression

This piece was originally posted on The News Sunday on October 22, 2017

By Umber Khairi

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the SAATH conference in London. SAATH, you may remember, is the acronym for South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights, which is a US based organisation run by Pakistanis dedicated to working for a progressive and pluralistic future for Pakistan.

This was the second conference held by SAATH — the first was also in London around the same time last year, and had been declared by various hawkish trolls and commentators as ‘a conference of traitors’.

The traitor/ghaddar label was slapped onto the gathering perhaps because a lot of the discussion was around extremism and the state’s role in patronising or protecting militants. A lot of disinformation about participants was tweeted even as they were attending the conference.

At any rate, the second conference was held to consolidate the forum established last year, and to continue the conversation about how to move towards a more tolerant and pluralistic future.

The conference, hosted by Dr Taqi and former Pakistan ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani brought together journalists, academics, writers, and people from varied ethnic groups, and reiterated the vision of an inclusive country.

While the theme of this year’s gathering was ‘The Way Forward’, and the idea was to come up with concrete proposals and constructive suggestions, it was inevitable that many of the sessions would be dominated by regional or provincial grievances. I say inevitable because there was so much that so many people had to say, that they normally are not able to express. So people had a lot to say — because everybody had a story: whether it was a Hazara who had seen his community being decimated around him and was constantly regarded with suspicion in his own country and told he ‘did not look Pakistani’, or whether it was a Baloch professional forced to flee the country, or whether it was Kashmiri rights activist or an urban journalist faced with threats and warnings…

Everybody had a story and a sorrow.

What is interesting is how the stories, comments, reproaches actually brought people closer together. By the end of the day, people with opposing views and politics were able to talk to each other with the respect and appreciation of having listened and been listened to and been able to express their point of view without censure.

But some who attended from Pakistan last year were absent this year because they had, reportedly, been ‘advised’ that doing so would not be good for their careers. Others who did not attend had similar issues.

The idea of holding a SAATH gathering in Pakistan in future was raised, and although this is a goal, the issue remains that many participants are still regarded as persona non grata by the military establishment and hence unsure how safe they will be in an environment where we have seen a number of rights activists eliminated in recent years.

Nevertheless, the intention to set up SAATH secretariats in both Pakistan and where the diaspora is and to hold a conference in Pakistan was announced. Tolerance, democracy, peace with neighbouring countries and the role of the diaspora were all topics that were discussed as was the CPEC and the recent census. Participants also talked about the dangers of the establishment’s apparent determination to mainstream militant organisations by allowing them to rebrand themselves as political parties and enter the electoral arena — as SAATH stalwart and conference host Dr Mohammad Taqi remarked, “The focus should be on mainstreaming tolerance not jehadis”.

The conference, hosted by Dr Taqi and former Pakistan ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani brought together journalists, academics, writers, and people from varied ethnic groups, and reiterated the vision of an inclusive country.

A clear and strongly worded declaration was read out by Rashed Rehman at the end of the conference, and this received a standing ovation.

So, however unlikely goals seem and however murky things appear, when people are intent on trying to move forward, they do manage to find a way…

Or so one hopes.

Best wishes

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