The deafening sound of silence

September 13, 2018

There has been an outcry in the country over the PTI government’s decision to effectively withdraw Atif Mian, one of the world’s 25 most influential young economists according to international analysts, from the Economic Advisory Council that he had been nominated to just days before.

The PTI’s reversal on its insistence that Atif Mian, who is Ahmadi, would be retained came amid one of those now-familiar protests from the religious right, led by the TLP, which has apparently walked out of its nightmares and into the mainstream of our politics.

As the debate continues, what is alarming, however, is that the protests against his removal either exist only on social media and the mainstream media or are voiced by major economists based outside the country. Within the boundaries of Pakistan, no mainstream political parties, including those who position themselves as liberals or defenders of a more moderate Pakistan, have made any move to stand up to the TLP. The fear of the group and others like it may be a factor. But this lack of courage has also allowed the religious right to dominate space and take control of propaganda and opinion-shaping in the country in recent years.

The PPP has joined the sinister silence that we see everywhere else. Though to its credit it didn’t sign the Senate resolution pointing out that Atif Mian was Ahmadi – a fact that is completely irrelevant to his appointment under the constitution.

Shockingly, the ANP – a party that still calls itself secular – did sign the resolution as did the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and almost every other mainstream group. There is then simply no one left to stage visible protests against Pakistan’s continuous rightward slide or the discrimination against groups within the country.

It is unrealistic to expect what we call the ‘civil society’ to take a stand on its own. This group, made up essentially of NGOs and activists advocating the rights of women, minorities and others, have consistently staged their small vigils and protests after similar outrages and have done so again. But the gathering of an odd 50 to 100 people – perhaps a few more – is almost irrelevant in a situation where we know forces such as the TLP can bring hundreds, if not thousands, of armed zealots to the streets. There has to be someone to stand up to them.

Unfortunately, those who could do so have been demolished over the past decades while political parties that should be taking a stand apparently lack the spine to even issue a statement. We haven’t heard from Bilawal Bhutto, Asfandyar Wali or any other major leader from any political group in this regard. In such a situation, the Right has an open path to the victory stand. It is currently joyfully making its way down it.

Things in the past were somewhat different. In 1955, the Democratic Students Federation and its militant wing, the openly leftist Red Guards, took to the streets on numerous occasions, physically tackling the police and pro-government student groups with knuckledusters, chains, knives and rods. The DSF, linked to the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), was banned in 1954 as part of the action against the CPP on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and the hard-line Left Red Guards vanished with it.

But even after this, the National Students Federation of Meraj Muhammad Khan, who later joined the PPP, continued to defy Ayub Khan’s dictatorship and take on the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba at institutions across the country. Despite its division into Maoist and Leninist blocs, the NSF remained a force to be reckoned with. The People’s Guard, set up during the 1970s to defend PPP rallies against IJT workers, also acted against the Right, as did other pro-PPP groups established after General Ziaul Haq assumed power in 1977-78. The politics of these groups are further complicated by the role played by Bhutto’s sons. Nevertheless, liberal outfits were present on the scene.

The Black Eagles, formed in 1979 at various universities and colleges in Lahore as an anti-Zia student outfit, continued this tradition of taking on elements who defended right-wing policies until all student groups were banned in 1984. Thirty-four years later, we have been unable to restore student unions, which are so central to change in countries around the world.

The first Benazir government in 1988 made an effort to do so, but the order was struck down by the Supreme Court. Former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani after the 2008 election also pledged a revival, but this never occurred. The result, of course, is that only groups from the extreme Right have become visible as space was opened up for them to spread out, even as those ideologically opposed to them were crushed and cornered, and many of their leaders were forced to flee the country.

This factor has also contributed to the changing public mindset in the country. As analyses of Election 2018 come in, it is clear that the TLP and also other groups with a right-wing, religious orientation won an enormous number of votes, even in major urban constituencies dominated by the more educated and, we would assume, liberal sections of society.

Clearly, there is a huge support base for the opinions that now exist, pitching Ahmadis as villains and denying even a man of Atif Mian’s global stature an opportunity to serve the country that he vows to give all he can to now and in the future. The two resignations from the EAC we have seen following the decision against Atif Mian don’t mean very much. At least 10 other members of the council, including leaders of the top educational and business institutions in the country, have opted against even a symbolic protest.

It is difficult to see then how change will come. We have no groups equipped to take on the forces of the Right. They have their madressahs from which cadres of young men who truly believe that the cause they have been taught is the righteous way, and can literally pour into the streets and bring life to a halt. We saw this happen in 2017 in Islamabad and on many occasions before this.

Yes, the expected statements and press releases have been issued by organisations that bravely continue to fight the hatred and lack of logic raging through society. It has also been pointed out that the law has been violated by denying appointments on the basis of belief. However, we will need to rejuvenate active elements to make more obvious displays of resentment against what is happening.

The country’s major political parties need to accept responsibility for this. The PPP, the ANP and other groups must join hands and, in the first place, instil a common voice among their leaders. PPP leader Shahla Raza’s unsavoury tweet about Mian Atif was unfortunate. In fact, given the havoc they have created in politics, too much hasty tweeting should be discouraged. We need to consider why we are becoming a society where only one kind of opinion can prevail. This is akin to a fascist situation. We need far greater pluralism and far greater opposition to the voice of hatred.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.



Categories: Asia, Pakistan

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