South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

ISLAMABAD: There is a dismal situation of human rights and democratic practices in Pakistan, efforts are being made to alter the 18th Amendment, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) have been thrown out of the country, media has been facing immense pressure and the state is keen to ensure that people follow a single narrative.

This was the crux of the ‘National Conference on Human Rights and Democratic Participa­tion’ organised by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) at a hotel here on Wednesday.

The daylong event was quite informative and the participants hardly got bored and remarks of federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood after the speech of former senator Farhatullah Babar of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) got everyone involved in the discussion.

Minister says it has become a trend to speak against the army

Mr Babar said: “Mysterious discussions recently in media on ‘Islamic presidential system’ raise doubts whether pitch is being prepared for replacing federal parliamentary structure with a unitary and centrist form of government.”

He said suspicions deepen when media outlets known to be backed by the establishment pedal such theories. He said there is a centrist mindset which wants the country ruled by command, detests diffusion of power and has not easily reconciled with the parliamentary system and poses a grave threat to the present system. The same mindset imposed ‘parity formula’ on the then East Pakistan to deny its due share in political power, he said.

“During the days of Ayub Khan this mindset maintained that parliamentary democracy did not suit the genius of our people. During Yahya days it declared that army was drawn from the people and, therefore, army rule in a way represented people’s rule. During Zia days the Constitution was said to be merely a 15-page document which ‘I can tear at will any time’. Musharraf also recently said that national security was more important than the Constitution,” he said. “The elephant in the room is the centrist establishment acting on command and I suggest political parties join hands to push the elephant out of the room,” he said.

However, Shafqat Mahmood disagreed with him and said that in Pakistan everyone was allowed to speak freely.

“It has become a trend to speak against the army. What is meant by saying that there is an elephant in the room? We should realise that thousands of soldiers have sacrificed their lives just to protect the country,” he said.

However, some of the participants, sitting in front rows, interfered and started giving counter-arguments due to which Mr Mahmood got annoyed.

The minister said that it was strange that participants were gathered there to speak against extremism and intolerance, but they were not ready to listen to him.

“The army has rendered a number of sacrifices but here people like to speak against the armed forces. We should increase tolerance level within us. People are not allowed to speak in the Middle East; however, in Pakistan here you are speaking just because of democracy,” he said, pointing at the participants.

Bushra Gohar, a former MNA of the Awami National Party (ANP) who was invited to talk just after Mr Mahmood, said that she should be careful while speaking as here people become missing persons after speaking at such forums.

“It is strange that a security state has been feeling threat from its citizens and majority feels threatened from minority and has been trying to control the minorities. I don’t think there is democracy in the country. Currently, people belonging to the minorities cannot become president and prime minister of Pakistan. We are living in a country where every day the Hindu community gives statements to prove that it is loyal to the country. Maybe someday even some Muslim sects would be declared ineligible for top-most seats,” she said.

MNA Ahsan Iqbal of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said that the provinces would never accept any attempt to roll back the 18th Amendment. He said Pakistan was suffering because system of the country was derailed a number of times.

“In 1999, in terms of per capita income, Pakistan was much ahead of India and Bangladesh, but now both countries are much ahead of us. We need to think why it happened,” he said.

Former senator Afrasiab Khattak said that it was unfortunate that the establishment had never accepted the 1973 Constitution and always tried to bring another system. He said the 18th Amendment had stopped direct intervention in the government and suspension of the Constitution, so efforts were being made to amend it.

MNA and leader of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement Mohsin Dawar said that it was unfortunate that even opposition parties didn’t call him to their meetings. He alleged that there was controlled democracy in the country.

At the beginning of the conference, HRCP’s honorary spokesperson I.A. Rehman said that it was the right of the people of Pakistan to be governed democratically, and that political parties needed to come together to work on a new charter of democracy.

PPP’s parliamentary leader in the Senate Sherry Rehman said that the public conversation must turn to “our ability to protect the vulnerable, the dispossessed and the discriminated”.

HRCP secretary general Harris Khalique emphasised that it was imperative that ‘‘we continue to speak the truth about the challenges to human rights in Pakistan’’.

Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2019