I live in Lahore. Though not a great fan of cantonments, I really like this place called Fortress Stadium in Cantt. It is one of the few places where different classes hang out even if not mingle. Everyone has to enter and exit through the same gates where security procedures have become more stringent lately.
The last time I went to Fortress, as we like to call it, must have been more than a year ago. Our car was stuck in the usual queue at the entrance. The security checks took longer than usual for the car ahead of us.
Once inside the premises, I saw the policeman lead that car to one side. He must have asked the people to come out because they did. Five young people who all wore shalwar kameez, sported beards and looked like Pashtuns started hopping out of the car.
The police in cantonments look menacing; you better relent than mess with them. The boys seemed to know that.
It was a sight not too easy to forget. Did the boys take it in their stride or did this destroy their evening out? How did it feel being singled out in a crowd, for being suspected of a crime you had no intention of committing?
To talk about freedom is not an easy exercise anywhere. Here, it’s a given that you discuss the concept more for its absence than presence.
To me, all freedoms present or absent in today’s Pakistan like freedom of speech, freedom to profess your religion, to inquire and question seem like clichés in the face of that one freedom — freedom from fear.
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Ask a woman who wants to sit alone on a bench in a park to just think and enjoy the winter sun, or roam in the same familiar streets at night time, or walk to a nearby shop to do a necessary chore after sunset. She is lucky if she can imagine this; most don’t dare tread in that territory.
It’s not too long ago that we heard about a few bloggers gone missing. They were defying their fear on that one platform that allowed them to defy it — the social media. In a matter of a few days, about five of them had disappeared. The wise friends on social media went quiet in no time. Others didn’t. This wasn’t happening in one of the smaller provinces after all.
The outcry was implicit. If the bloggers had committed a ‘crime’, they should be tried under the ‘law of the land’. Within days, a crime was invented for the bloggers for which the law and the ensuing punishment were clear. No wait, even the charges were enough to castigate them for life.
Those who disappeared (yes, it’s a verb now) them didn’t need to do much after that. One or two of them reappeared, their families disclosed, though no one really saw or met them. And then they disappeared again. Someone rightly pointed out, those who go missing never really return.
It is much easier to write what you want in an English language paper than Urdu; it is easier still if you are writing for a news magazine. The levels of fear and freedom vary depending on the outreach of the product you are writing for.
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In this context of fear, social media is getting out of everyone’s reach: the lawmakers, the implementers, the judges, the faithfuls. Now here is something that cannot be “controlled” — through conventional means or laws. If you let the media alone and try to disappear those who are committing mischief, so many others crop up on the same social media in favour of the disappeared.
Then there is all sorts of latent content on social media which, once pointed at from the citadels of judicial power as was done recently, spreads with full might. It would have been wiser to let it stay where it was. But since it’s blasphemous in scope, we are told, all hell has been let loose.
The country’s top investigation agency has issued notifications to be informed about such content, without realising the potential for its misuse and what a mere allegation could do to a person. The law-makers in both houses have gone out of their way to locate such pages and punish the culprits with nothing less than 295-C if needed.
That’s not where it stopped. In a country that is said to be predominantly Muslim — the figure is anywhere between 95 to 98 per cent — people started accepting this challenge (#challengeaccepted) to declare their faith on social media (Imagine a vast majority declaring its faith, to who we don’t know). They argued they had the freedom to do so. Freedom from fear, anyone!
Fear challenges and, finally, buries nuance. In our case, it has buried sanity and sense of humour too.
Those who were in favour of stricter punishments for blasphemy may have seen by now how no person who is cleared of such charges by the courts can live in this country free of fear. Most of them have to leave the country; in some cases, even the judges issuing these verdicts of acquittal.
The gung-ho parliament must realise that it is here, on the floor, that any future discussion on reforming the law will have to take place.
There is no bigger freedom than freedom from fear in this country and people need to fight for it. Only then can they ask for the real freedoms that all members of this society actually need — to be educated, to have healthcare, food and employment. Only an insecure person grudges others their right to worship. The freedom of speech will follow and not precede this freedom from fear.
I don’t really know what happened to those Pashtun boys. Did they feel intimidated by that discriminatory act or did they retain their joyful spirit and return to Fortress Stadium again?
Freedom Day in Pakistan can become a hard intellectual exercise, often bordering on cynicism, than a cause for celebration.