Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Citizens and Political Forces Unite Against Oppression and Disinformation

Previously there were scattered voices waging the fight, alone or in small groups – mainly members of civil society. But all that has changed now. Political parties and groups, and workers unions have come together and joined hands with civil society.

Organised by the Citizens for Democracy (CFD), which describes itself as “an umbrella group of professional organisations, political parties, trade unions and individuals outraged by the consistent misuse and abuse of the Blasphemy Law and of religion in politics,” a reference for Salmaan Taseer held at the PMA (Pakistan Medical Association) House on January 18, 2011, drew a crowd of 500. This, despite the fact that just a day before there had been a change of venue as the Karachi Arts Council, where the event was initially supposed to take place, refused to host it stating security concerns as their reason. The reference was also held after the rally in Lahore on January 16 organised by Tahaffuz Namoos-i-Risalat Mahaz (TNRM), whose vice president, Dr Ashraf Jalali, had remarked at the event: “Mumtaz Hussain Qadri is a hero of the Muslim ummah. Whoever criticises him or Section 295-C will have their tongues pulled out.” He also issued a stern warning to the media, directing it not to invite people who spoke against Qadri.

The reference was a response to the constant unveiled threats and pressure tactics adopted by the “religious” lobby, their manipulation of the debate on the Blasphemy Law and Taseer’s murder, their campaign to make Taseer’s murderer a hero and their strategy to misinform the masses about facts regarding the law and Taseer’s stance. Thus, the evening began with a presentation on the history of the Blasphemy Law, how it came to be in its current form, its misuse and the number of false cases that have been registered over the years. Following this was a screening of Blind Faith, a documentary by Sara Naqvi (see it here). Both of these aimed at dispelling some of the widely believed untruths about the law and generating awareness about its (mis)use.

The most lively and uplifting part of the evening was when the speakers, of which there were many, addressed the crowd and paid tribute to Taseer. Among them were well-known personalities such as Iqbal Haider (former secretary-general, HRCP), activist and WAF member Amar Sindhu and Mohsin Sayeed, who read out a message from Taseer’s family. Others included members of various political and workers parties, including Kaiser Bengali (Advisor to the Chief Minister Sindh for Planning and Development), Asif Buledi (General Secretary Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz), Jan Mohammad Buledi (National Party), Kunwar Khalid Yunus (MQM), Nasir Mansoor (Labour Party), Ramzan Memon (Awami Party) and Farid Awan (Deputy General Secretary All Pakistan Trade Union Federation and Secretary Sindh, Pakistan Workers Confederation) who expressed their solidarity with their friends from civil society and assured them of their and their organisations’ support. Members of minority communities, Amar Nath Matomal (HRCP and President Hindu Panchayat Karachi Division) and Father Thomas Gulfam (Korangi Parish) spoke on behalf of their communities and joined hands as well.

All the speakers vehemently condemned Mumtaz Qadri and his supporters. Many of them raised the same point: years of silence and submission have led to the magnanimity of the problem – especially the religious intolerance and the use of religion for political motives. However, this they hoped would now be a thing of the past as the struggle and cause for which Taseer too died, will neither be thwarted by pressure, nor remain within the confines of closed rooms. They stressed that religion and the state needed to be separated. A resolution prepared by the CFD, which has been endorsed by several individuals and organisations, was shared with the audience. It requests the government and the law enforcing agencies to comply and take immediate action (see the Urdu text of the resolution here).

To date, the PPP continues to adopt an apologist position towards both the murder of their governor and the Blasphemy Law debate.

Nobody expects much from the government; this was made quite clear. Perhaps this is why Fauzia Wahab, information secretary, Sindh, was not bombarded with questions and counter arguments after her speech. Only when she said there was a need to begin the sensitisation of the masses on the issue of blasphemy did audience members and moderator Rahat Saeed of the Progressive Writers’ Association suggest that she could perhaps wield her influence and have Sarah Naqvi’s documentary aired on PTV, Pakistan’s state run channel, at the very least.

While venues continue to be denied for this cause, that too by institutions such as the Karachi Arts Council and the Press Club, the Lyari Town Administration has generously offered CFD the People’s Stadium, which can hold up to 15,000 people. 

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