A journalist detained for eight hours. An activist slapped with a sedition case. The Fourth Asma Jahangir Conference held in Lahore on October 22-23 unironically showed just how much its theme “Crisis of Constitutionalism in Southasia” resonates across countries in the neighbourhood.

Asma Jahangir was a Pakistani human rights advocate in whose name the annual conference was instituted in 2018, months after her death. Her courageous voice and vision are needed today more than ever before, say human rights activists and legal experts.

The conference touched upon a range of concerns from religious bigotry in India marked by a crackdown on Muslims and Sri Lanka’s economic woes and food insecurity, to situation in Afghanistan, especially the suppression of the rights of women.

Other matters such as the effects of climate change, press freedom and creeping censorship, transgender rights, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions too found discussion. At this critical juncture, the deliberations provided a platform to voices calling for human rights and democracy not just in the region but also the world.

Participants included four Indian delegates, who obtained visas with “great difficulty”, as one of them told Sapan News later. It was an “agonising process”, said another.


Bastar to Balochistan

Those in India who protest the government’s policies are told to “go to Pakistan”, said independent journalist Malini Subramaniam. “Here I am,” she said.

Subramaniam, who is also a former head of the Chhattisgarh branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross, spoke about the persecution of Muslim journalists in India like Siddique Kappan, Muhammad Zubair, Rana Ayyub and others.

She reported extensively from the conflict area of Bastar in Chhattisgarh where the proscribed Maoist organisation operates. On the pretext of fighting the Maoists, the government has been rounding up innocent villagers, often detaining them and even killing them. “The situation is strikingly similar to that in Balochistan,” said Subramaniam, referring to the discussion on extrajudicial killings by senior journalist Hamid Mir who hosts the popular Capital Talk on Geo TV.

During a discussion on “Media under Siege in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh”, Mir, also an outspoken opponent of enforced disappearances, highlighted the October 18 killing of Brahvi poet Tabish Waseem Baloch. The Brahvi are a pastoralist ethnic group from Balochistan. Baloch’s body was discovered in Nushki in Balochistan.

Mir said the murder came “as a slap in the face” of parliamentarians who had travelled to Balochistan last month and assured the grieving families of missing individuals that their loved ones would not be killed in such encounters.

Media under siege

Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists voiced his appreciation for the calibre of Pakistan’s journalists, “their determination, bravery, and talent”. He hoped that the country would be able to “reconstruct much of what has been threatened in recent years using this foundation of top-notch journalism and tradition”.

On October 20, Butler was detained for eight hours upon his arrival in Pakistan for the conference. His detention appeared to be the “result of a breakdown in communication” between the Pakistan government and the interior ministry that had approved his visa, said the New York-based activist.

Someone apparently forgot to inform the Federal Investigation Agency, which monitors airports, that Butler was no longer on the no-entry list of Pakistan’s Interior Ministry.

In 2019, when Butler had arrived for the Second Asma Jahangir Conference, he was not only detained but also deported from Lahore airport. Pakistan’s ruling dispensation was unhappy about Butler’s July 2019 opinion piece in The Washington Post on the censorship “overdrive” and crackdown on the press in the country.

Daniel Bastard, Asia-Pacific Director of Reporters Without Borders, said political parties often have clout with major media organisations. Grassroots journalists, meanwhile, “typically work for pitiful wages under horrible circumstances and endure protracted pay delays”, he said.

Tremendous commercial pressures on the media are severely affecting the independence of newsrooms and the “diversity of opinions within media organisations”, according to Bastard. He said that media outlets aligning themselves with political parties also harms the independence of journalism.

Disappearances and ‘Vigo’ cars

If the conference had begun with Butler’s detention, it ended with a case of sedition against another panellist, Manzoor Pashteen, whose nascent organisation, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, aims to protect Pashtun youth from stereotyping and extrajudicial killings.

Jahangir’s last public appearance and speech was at a demonstration led by Pashteen in Islamabad in February 2018 against the extrajudicial killing of a Pashtun youth in a “police encounter” in Karachi in January that year. The protest marked the launch of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Jahangir passed away days later at her home in Lahore.

Pashteen, during the panel discussion on “Illegal and arbitrary detentions”, criticised Pakistan’s “monarchical style of governance”, including the role of the military and its generals.

The young Pashtun leader said that rather than respecting the courts of law, it is “Vigo cars” – a vehicle synonymous with enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions in Pakistan – that are “managing this system. “...If you speak up, Vigo cars will come and talk with you rather than saying that the law, the constitution, or the court will take effect,” he said.

His speech drew immense attention and 24 hours later, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf -led administration in Punjab filed a first information report against Pashteen for sedition.

Afghanistan and the Taliban

Afghanistan figured prominently during the discussions at the conference. “On August 15, 2021, democracy died within 24 hours in Afghanistan in front of us,” said women’s rights campaigner and journalist Mahbouba Seraj, who has stayed on in Kabul despite the mounting pressure. She asked how things had to come to the stage that women had no rights in a country with a population of 20 million. Taliban, good or evil is the question of the year, she said.

Seraj said that while there are various Taliban groupings, they all have the same worldview. The main difference is how they feel about girls’ education with some in favour of it and others opposed to it.

Former Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan Dr Omar Zakhilwal said the Taliban “must win over the general populace” if they want the international community to recognise them as the Afghan government. He advocated for a conversation with the Taliban in-person, which may persuade their leadership or decision-makers to start seeing the importance of changing their course and why doing so would be in their best interests.

Responding to a question on how the world can help Afghanistan, Seraj reminded the audience that it was in fact the international community that facilitated the creation of the Taliban and their ascent to power in the first place. She said that the international community’s lack of action was only benefitting the Taliban now.

Dr Sima Samar, Afghanistan’s former Minister of Women’s Affairs, warned that the Taliban’s oppression of women will also affect Pakistan and other countries in the region.Samar called for Pakistanis to oppose the Taliban’s suppression of women’s access to education “before it’s too late”.

At the conference’s closing ceremony, just as foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari began his speech, some young audience members began chanting for the release of Ali Wazir, the illegally detained national assembly parliamentarian. “Go and protest to those who can liberate him” retorted the foreign minister, hinting at the real power in Pakistan.

He termed it a victory for the democratic political process that former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed by constitutional means. “You may not like the fact that he was removed, but he is the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to be removed like this” rather than by military means, a presidential ordinance or the hangman’s noose.

At a time when a third of Pakistan is still reeling under unprecedented floods, he called for political parties and the media to focus on this as a nonpartisan issue to help the millions who have been affected.

Abdullah Zahid is an aspiring journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan who attended part of the AJ Conference online. Beena Sarwar is a journalist based in Boston. Their Twitter handles are: @AbdullahhZahid and @beenasarwar.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature. Its Twitter handle is @southasiapeace.