A London conference calls for a more pluralistic and tolerant Pakistan

SAATH Forum London Conference 2016

A week ago, a group of Pakistanis gathered at a conference on the ‘Future of Pakistan’ and brainstormed about the challenges and problems the country is grappling with. At the end of the day, a resolution on prerequisites for progress was drafted and agreed upon by the participants.

This resolution is important because it unified a varied group of individuals who identified with great clarity some of the main issues obstructing progress. The most important of these are perhaps the emphasis on pluralism: “Only a pluralistic Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbours, fully respectful of human rights of all including religious minorities would be able to gain international respect, have a positive global and local image and avoid further descent into chaos”.

It was also resolved that participants would “stand together to move towards this objective to protect a pluralistic vision of Pakistan and let the world know that such a vision exists”.

The resolution emphasised that for any meaningful progress, the country needs to strengthen democracy, keep religion out of the business of the State (and out of politics generally), and the state needs to stop patronising and utilising terrorist and militant groups for foreign policy objectives — which are of no benefit to the citizens and which are leading the country to an unprecedented state of global isolation.

The unequal (and often murderous) treatment of the country’s various ethnic groups and varied nationalities was identified in the resolution as absolutely crucial to meaningful change and some of the sessions where this was discussed were the most moving of the conference.

The stories recounted by some Baloch, Sindhi, Seraiki and Balti citizens were thought-provoking and often heart-rending. Such first person accounts expose a reality that is completely at odds with the right wing, urban, Punjabi-dominated narrative that prevails in Pakistan today. Many of these individuals had lost family and friends to terror attacks or other forms of extremist violence, or had themselves been forced to flee the country after their lives came under threat either because what they did or what they said was a threat to ‘the powers that be’.

The discussion emphasised on how important it was to have a positive vision of the country, a dream of peace and tolerance that is able to move the nation out of the range of nightmares.

The conference was attended by journalists, columnists, activists, academics and lawyers. Long time human rights activists in attendance included Karamat Ali and Anis Haroon. Well-known journalists in attendance included Babar Ayaz, Rashed Rahman and Beena Sarwar. Politicians included the ANP’s Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gohar, and the MQM’s Wasay Jalil.

The conference was held under the auspices of South Asians for Tolerance and Human Rights (SAATH), and the two main organisers were both US based: outspoken columnist and physician Mohammad Taqi and former spin doctor and ambassador Husain Haqqani.

The organisers say that London was chosen as the venue for ‘security reasons’, but alas almost two dozen of the delegates invited from Pakistan were not able to attend because they were refused a British visa. But even as conference was underway, stories smearing a number of delegates began to be disseminated over social media. These libellous stories were astonishingly imaginative but were mostly based around the theme of being anti-state — Indian agents, American agents etc etc.

One story declared that a well-known analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, who is critical of military policy and business interests, had visited Kabul in mid-October, and had been responsible for planning the terrorist attack on Quetta’s Police Training College. Similar sorts of stories were circulated about Husain Haqqani and Marvi Sirmed. Then a group picture of delegates posing at the end of the conference was re-used on Facebook with the caption ‘Forum of Traitors’.

Words and ideas are powerful things and it seems that many of the things discussed and concluded at the conference were deemed dangerous by certain lobbies. And while many will scoff at the idea of a group of progressive, secular individuals meeting and agreeing on various points, the fact of the matter is that everybody present there learnt something. The discussion emphasised on how important it was to have a positive vision of the country, a dream of peace and tolerance that is able to move the nation out of the range of nightmares.

By Umber Khairi for The News on Sunday