The military’s influence in Pakistan’s public life came under fire at a conference here that brought together more than 60 left and liberal thinkers and political activists from the beleaguered country and elsewhere, with some calling for “controlled demolition” of the army’s role.
Organised by Saath Forum (South Asians Against Terrorism & for Human Rights) on Saturday, the conference on the Pakistan’s future issued a “London Declaration for Pakistani Pluralism” that highlighted several issues confronting the country.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former envoy to the US, told Hindustan Times: “If Pakistan wants to avoid big pressure from the rest of the world, it has to change from within. The current narrative of the establishment is untenable.”
Organisers said the conference had to be held away from Pakistan because of what they called “threats to the security of free thinkers in the country”. Participants included leading Pakistani individuals based in Europe, the US and Canada.
The event highlighted a range of issues, including the marginalisation of the Baloch and other minorities by “Punjabi majoritarianism”, crises of identity, a shift in the military’s “control of government to control of governance”, and the need for a dialogue for unity among various ethnic groups.
In a moving presentation, politician Shahjahan Baloch strongly opposed the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that, he said, had adversely affected Balochistan and recalled the killing of dozens of lawyers and police cadets in the province in the recent past.
“It is wrong to say there is democracy in Balochistan. We don’t want the development brought by CPEC. I have lost so many friends. Who will want the fruits of such development that comes with so many killings? We only want the right to life,” he said.
Recounting the military’s pervasive role in public life, speakers said the army was now involved in image and narrative management, with major investment in films, radio and theatre to “capture the mind before it gets ideas”.
To strengthen democracy, the military needs to be put on the back foot, speakers said, adding that news media in Pakistan was not being allowed to convey ground realities to the people.
The declaration said: “It is sad and disconcerting that instead of dealing with these issues with the help of fresh ideas espoused by broad-minded Pakistanis, the Pakistani state tends to appease religious extremists, continue to propagate religious extremism and allow it free spread in society and persistently misinform the people of Pakistan about the realities of our country.”
It added: “The Pakistani state, regrettably, expresses a continued willingness to engage with religious extremists and terrorists, and sometimes even talks of formally inducting Jihadi terrorist groups into the state’s paramilitary structure but remains hostile to liberal, progressive and nationalist groupings within Pakistan.”
Political parties representing Baloch, Mohajir, Sindhi and Pashtun segments of Pakistan’s population, the declaration said, had been targeted by state repression and hostile propaganda aimed at delegitimising them even when they had won clear electoral mandates.
Participants included former lawmaker Afrasiyab Khattak, former Pakistan high commissioner to UK Wajid Shamsul Hasan, columnist Ayesha Siddiqa, Anis Haroon, rights activist Beena Sarwar, broadcaster Murtaza Solangi, scholar Mohammad Taqi, journalist Rashed Rehman, Taimur Rahman, Wasay Jalil and Senge Hasnan Sering.