‘SAATH’ conference suggests liberal, democratic, secular and progressive approach is only way forward for Pakistan



LONDON: A number of speakers echoed at two-day conference here on Saturday/Sunday (October 14/15) the common point of view that “a liberal, democratic, secular and progressive country” is the only way forward for Pakistan to accomplish the goal and destiny for which it was created after an unprecedented sacrifices in 1947 and beyond.
Several prominent liberal, progressive and nationalist intellectuals, human rights and social media activists and public figures from Pakistan gathered in London for a conference on ‘Pakistan: The Way Forward’, organised under the banner of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH), co-hosted by US-based columnist Dr Mohammad Taqi and former Pakistan ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani.
One of the organisers was of the view that London was chosen as the venue of the second such conference because of alleged threats to free expression in Pakistan “where hundreds of people are extra-judicially disappeared”. More than half of the liberal participants with anti-establishment views arrived from Pakistan while the rest were exiles from Canada, United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom.
Another delegate stated that the gathering had to be arranged, like last year, away from Pakistan because of the threats to the security of free thinkers in the country. Participants (list attached) expressed grave concern on Pakistan’s continuing crisis-ridden trajectory, of which the increasing threat of global isolation as a consequence of the continuation and expansion of proxy wars in our neighbourhood holds centre-stage. There are other equally important areas of worry.
The widening circle of repression of critical, dissenting voices to the state’s narrative have led to shrinking space for liberal, secular, progressive ideas and pluralism. There are constant threats to democracy and to nationalists in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. NGOs, human rights defenders and individuals are being victimised. Major political parties are demonstrating an inability to prioritise protection of human rights and social justice.

Hussain Haqqani addresses the conference. Marvi Sarmad, Hussain Haqqani, Beena Sarwar and another delegate sitting at dais.

Attempts to mainstream extremist and terrorist organisations are a particularly dangerous development and a threat to the democratic polity. State support for, and tolerance of, groups considered terrorist by the rest of the world remains a serious concern. Unelected institutions of state challenging the democratic mandate of the elected government, in keeping with a persistent pattern, continue to be a serious source of apprehension.
To establish a true democracy in Pakistan, which is a multi-national state, the federating units must be given not only maximum political autonomy but also control over their natural resources.  The National Finance Commission Award should be revisited giving more weightage to underdevelopment of the provinces and their contribution to the national exchequer.
This forum recognises that one of the reasons Pakistan’s democracy has remained tenuous is that while the Centre has denied rights to the provinces, the provinces have failed in the devolution of power to the local governments.
Therefore, this forum demands that the provinces should activate the Provincial Finance Commissions and allocate maximum resources to the local governments. It also demands that the local governments should be given 25% of the royalty and the profits of natural resources exploited from their respective areas.
Participants decided that Pakistan needs a new national narrative that is based on the consent of its people rather than on religious hatred, militarism and militancy. Participants of SAATH will set up two secretariats, one in Pakistan and the other abroad for the diaspora, to help wrestle the idea and identity of Pakistan away from the obscurantist forces.
One of the sessions was titled ‘Finding peace with our neighbours’, where participants agreed that Pakistan could become a normal country only after normalising relations with neighbouring countries, especially India.
Hussain Haqqani said that ties with India should not be held hostage to any single issue: “No nation can survive permanent hostility with its largest neighbour. We shall also develop a habit to listen the dissident voices and should not treat those your enemy who may not speak in your favour or agree to your version of thoughts”.
Hussain Haqqani told the opening session that Pakistanis had to save their country from the threat of being declared a state sponsor of terrorism as a result of misguided policies of past 25 years. “It is better if reform-minded Pakistanis call for course correction than sanctions being imposed by global powers.” he said.
“Liberal, progressive, nationalist and secular visions of Pakistan need to be reinstated in Pakistan’s political arena if the country is to overcome threats of international isolation,” Haqqani told the opening session.
He said; “We must change the narrative that only religious extremists or intolerant bigots represent Pakistani patriotism.” He also said that “something is deeply wrong when a state tries to shut down people asking for reform while hosting underworld criminals like Dawood Ibrahim and terrorists like Siraj Haqqani and Hafiz Saeed.”
There was also criticism of the new policy of mainstreaming militant groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been transformed into Milli Muslim League.
According to Dr Taqi, “We want to focus on how tolerance can be mainstreamed in Pakistan at a time when Jihadis and those designated international terrorists are being mainstreamed.” He expressed concern that even the “facade of democracy in Pakistan” was being eroded and “invisible hands are expanding their role.”
The resolution adopted at the end of the conference said: “Pakistan faces the risk of global isolation because of its continuing proxy wars in its neighbourhood, widespread obscurantism, growing intolerance, lack of rule of law, along with official support for extremism and general disregard for human rights”.
Participants further agreed that:

  • Pakistan faces the risk of global isolation because of its continuing proxy wars in its neighbourhood, widespread obscurantism, growing intolerance, lack of rule of law, along with official support for extremism and general disregard for human rights.
  • Pakistan ranks 147 out of 188 countries in UN’s Human Development Index and 143 out of 144 in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report. It is the world’s sixth largest country by population with the world’s sixth largest military but its economy is 26thin the world by size of GDP on PPP basis and 42nd in nominal terms. Pakistan lags behind most of its neighbours on the Human Development Index and the Human Capital Index.
  • 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 continues to appease or nurture religious extremists, propagate or allow the propagation of religious extremism and allow it free spread in society, and persistently misinform the people of Pakistan about the realities of our country.
  • Instead of facing these harsh realities, the Pakistani people are fed a steady diet of conspiracy theories and exaggerated threats to national security from other nations and countries.
  • 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 and lately, mainstreaming extremist and terrorist organisations, but remains hostile to liberal, progressive and nationalist groupings within Pakistan.
  • Political parties representing the Baloch, Mohajir, Sindhi and Pashtun segments of Pakistan’s population have been targeted by both state repression and hostile propaganda aimed at delegitimising them even when they have won clear electoral mandates from the people.
  • The state also pursues repressive policies towards the population-wise smaller provinces and nationalities and their elected representatives.
  • It is time for Pakistan’s rich and powerful ruling elite to own up and take responsibility for the failed policies of the past instead of promoting conspiracy theories through manipulation of the mainstream mass media and increasing repression of the social media.
  • Participants of today’s conference are a diverse array of people, united by the desire for a pluralist and tolerant, liberal, secular and progressive Pakistan that abides by internationally recognized human rights, allows full and free debate, treats all its people and nationalities fairly and is no longer seen around the world as an incubator for terrorism.
  • Only a pluralist 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.
  • We resolve to stand with and assist each other to protect a pluralist, liberal, secular and progressive vision of Pakistan and to let the world know that such a vision exists and offers hope for Pakistan’s future.
  • We resolve to protect the legal rights of all non-extremist groups and political parties, notwithstanding our disagreements over details and minutiae of policies or personality differences with individuals and leaders.
  • Questioning state policies is a legitimate right of all Pakistanis. We stand together to oppose the tendency to label dissident voices as traitors or ‘kafirs’in an effort to shut down debate and discussion of alternative policies.

Conference organisers said future plans included setting up two secretariats, one in Pakistan and the other abroad. “The conference is a right move in right direction and provided an unique opportunity to express views on Pakistan in a frank atmosphere without any fear”, the speakers and participants told ‘The Nation’.

Besides Hussain Haqqani and Mohammad Taqi, participants at the conference included former editors Rashed Rehman and Abbas Nasir, Senator Latif Afridi, author Arif Jamal, poet Atif Tauqeer, social activist and journalist Marvi Sirmed, and ‘Aman ki asha’ advocate Beena Sarwar.