The real Pakistan: report on CFD’s inspiring signature campaign

CFD volunteers engaged with the public and got a great response. Photo: Shuja Qureshi

Posted to the Citizens for Democracy blog:

“Without exaggeration, the exercise was a phenomenal success. Not only because a total of 15,000 signatures were collected… but also because it showed that ordinary people… overwhelmingly agreed with the cause…”

The real Pakistan | By Farieha Aziz

The oft written about and reported face of Pakistan is its militant and extremist one. Certainly that is a reality. But so is another Pakistan. The militants and extremists have bombs and guns, and they stage attacks that become media spectacles. The other Pakistan that we believe is the real Pakistan – is populated by peace-loving citizens, who oppose extremism and vigilante violence but have few avenues where they can voice their points of view.

A woman 'posts' her signed letter against vigilante violence. Photo: K.B. Abro

Some citizens, unwilling to let their country be drowned by the wave of militancy, have come together to provide a platform for their fellow citizens to speak out and let their voices be heard. One such opportunity was provided by a mass signature campaign in Karachi on March 12, ‘Silence Means More Blood’, organised by the Citizens for Democracy (CFD), an umbrella group of over 80 organisations and numerous individuals.

CFD was formed in December 2010, when some people came together on the one-point agenda against “the consistent misuse and abuse of the ‘blasphemy laws’ and religion in politics”. The letter campaign was an attempt to register a protest against the increasing acts of vigilante violence being justified in the name of religion, and the inaction of the government functionaries and heads of state institutions.

Addressed to the President, Prime Minister, Interior Ministry, Chief Justice of Pakistan, Chief Ministers, and the heads of all political parties, the letter protests the assassinations of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, and the ongoing threats against MNA Sherry Rehman and those who refuse to be intimidated into silence on this issue. The letter urges the heads of state institutions and political parties to take a defined stance on the blasphemy issue, and to treat as common criminals those who take the law into their own hands such as Mumtaz Qadri and the murderers of Mr Bhatti and threaten others.

A riksha driver joins the cause. Photo: Shuja Qureshi

The name “Taseer” and word “blasphemy”, which had practically become taboo in the public sphere, were blasted out of loudspeakers at the street corner where the campaign was launched. And this, from a tent pitched right in front of a bus stand, on a curb. There was no attempt to whitewash the issue in order to get greater numbers of people to sign the letter: copies were available in English and in Urdu, and those who could read were asked to read it. Volunteers read them out to those who were unable to. From 11am to 8pm, CFD members and volunteers manned the tables. Several people who had come to sign the letter also stayed on to help. Volunteers approached those passing by on foot or in vehicles cars, buses, motorcycles – inviting them to come and sign.

Without exaggeration, the exercise was a phenomenal success. Not only because a total of 15,000 signatures were collected some at the venue, some from stations set up earlier at other venues but also because it showed that ordinary people were willing to listen and that they overwhelmingly agreed with the cause.

This open-minded, openhearted response was itself an eye-opener; certainly not what most were expecting. Tragically, when Governor Taseer was assassinated, few had the courage to condemn his assassination publicly. “He got what he deserved,” or “he had it coming” was the refrain more commonly heard in the public domain. The Badshahi Masjid imam refused to lead Taseer¹s funeral prayers; parliamentarians and senators did not raise their hands in prayers for the deceased. The only public statement that was issued by the government was: “We will not allow changes to be made in the Blasphemy Law”.

However, even in the face of imminent threat with calls issued by many “religious” figures and parties warning people not to condemn Taseer’s murder many refused to cower. The day after Taseer’s assassination, people gathered to protest at Press Clubs in various cities; in Islamabad they collected at Kohsar Market where the murder had taken place. They lit candles, held up banners, and made speeches condemning his murder and religious fanaticism.

Breaking the silence: Reference for Salmaan Taseer. Photo: Nasir Mansoor

In Karachi, CFD turned a seminar that was being planned on the blasphemy law, into a Reference for the assassinated governor. There was so much fear around the issue that the auditorium originally booked for the seminar became unavailable after Taseer’s murder, and the Karachi Arts Council which was subsequently booked, also cancelled barely 24 hours before the event. Even the Karachi Press Club officers refused to allow the Reference to be held there. To their credit, the Pakistan Medical Association unhesitatingly offered their space as a last minute alternative for the reference.

Despite the sudden change in venue and lack of publicity, people turned out in large numbers to pay homage to the slain governor. They included some 600 members of civil society, political party representatives and activists, trade unionists, students and professionals from various fields. Several speakers addressed the audience, courageously, without mincing their words.

Barely two months later, they were out on the streets again, or at church services or public protests, in solidarity with the Christian community against the assassination of the brave Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. This continuous activism has emboldened others. Following the signature campaign, a Reference for Shahbaz Bhatti will be held at the Karachi Press Club on March 20th.

Another major public event to assert the space for progressive, non-violent, democratic ideas is being planned for April 17th at the CDGK (formerly KMC) Sports Complex, Karachi.

Every step of the way, each individual who comes out in support of this cause faces the question: Is it safe? There is no certain answer to this question. Call it lucky that so far no event, vigil or protest has been targeted. The threat remains, but those participating continue to move forward with the firm belief that raising a voice, “doing something”, is the need of the hour. The alternative — living in constant fear and under pressure — is a futile existence not worth contemplating.

The writer is a journalist who is also active with CFD. This piece was originally written for The Jinnah Institute

10 Responses

  1. […] The real Pakistan: report on CFD’s inspiring signature campaign […]

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  2. We should be mindful that it is an open declaration of war against the mullah who have turned the religion of the ‘Mercy of the worlds’ (Rehmatulaalimin) into a cult of killer Kali Devi and therefore should be careful in providing attractive and vulnerable targets to their terrorist outfits. It is the time perhaps we should think of raising a security organization of the young men of the civil society, to protect our gatherings, not only from the non-state terrorists but also those belonging to the state like those who openly brag to shoot in vigilante fashion those whom they consider to have committed blasphemy.

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  3. Well done! Keep up the good wrok… my prayers are with you guys!

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  4. Wish you guys all the best.

    I hesitate to raise this quibble about the title
    “The Real X”

    Maybe it goes with the territory, and its needed to raise morale among your campaigners. I would not like to dampen it. Please skip reading the following if that is so. I dont mind this comment getting moderated off either.

    I am afraid there is nothing unreal about the forces arrayed against you and it would seem at least from an external PoV that for now they have the upper hand. They seem to represent the desires of a large section of your population just like Bajrang/ VHP and co. fill this role over here. I consider it not so clearly a given that the “silent majority” is all that moderate. They lash out when they are fed and primed with enough tales of something they hold dear being “in danger”. I think a significant section of the “silent” crowd at least tacitly justifies violence after the fact even if they would not have acted themselves.

    It appears you have a more extreme version of this going. We are lucky to have had some check on the demons here but it seems a far cry to secure justice for riots and violence like 1984, 1992-93 and 2002. Its tough enough to get some enablers out of power even let alone charged. That is some idea of real India, in all its complexity and with all its problems.

    Good luck to you in you fight with very real and (IMO) more powerful opponents who are certainly real Pakistanis. I look forward to the day when vast majorities will turn up in your small towns and cities to “roar in anger” as Chris C or Beena S said a few threads ago.

    I dont see this happening in India anytime soon but that is when I will know the opponents here have no longer a significant claim to real India.

    thank you,
    Jai

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    • Thanks Jai. That’s a fair enough comment. I too feel hesitant about using the word ‘real’ but perhaps this needed to be done in order to assert this aspect of Pakistan. The reason India has been able to check these demons (despite aberrations during the years that you mention) is that the process of democratic, electoral politics has continued there without interruption (except for Indira Gandhi’s Emergency). It is only when this process is allowed to continue in Pakistan that we too will be able to have the upper hand over the forces of fanaticism.

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      • Excuse me dear, what about the ‘demon-cracy’ of ZAB vintage which converted the very constitution into a ‘takfiri fatwa’ and brought into power the demons like Zia and Rehman Malik. The fact, ironically, is that it were the army ‘dictators’ who tried to control this demon of fanaticism. How can one expect to churn up good butter from the dirty gutter by the shameless circus of democracy.

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      • Actually, the demon of fanaticism has been fanned, encouraged and trained by army dictators. The ‘circus of democracy’ as you put it, has never been allowed to complete its act. Military dictators come in and stay for a decade or more, leave a mess for elected governments to clean up, and they are never allowed to do so as they are sent packing before they can complete their term. It’s only when the democratic political process is allowed to continue that this cycle can end.

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  5. @beenaji

    I am sorry to say that you are repeating only media cliches about the role of democracy in the pakiland which seem to be against the facts on the ground.
    Btw, did not ZABist democracy complete its term and did not Ziai dictatorship only completed the practical application of his vision of the Second Amendment?

    Personally, I am of the view that in the prevailing circumstances there is no better choice than the piply democracy which had at least some committed workers and second line leaders like, Salman Taseer, Shebaz Bhatti, Dr. Israr, Ehtizaz Ahsan, etc., but it is sad to say that the top is just ‘chuble’, which have let their sacrifices and good work go waste.

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    • I think you didn’t read my last response. Facts on the ground are that no elected government in Pakistan has been allowed to complete its tenure. We’ve tried everything else, now let’s try giving the political process a chance.

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      • This is only hoping against hope by putting hope in the political process leading presently to the Hajj scandal. We can place hope, if at all, in the CJ who has delved into the den of this abominable ritualism at the cost of public money and exposed the fraudulent squandering of that money. Here
        I cannot help praising the Daily Dawn’s program, ‘Apna Grebaan’, I was just watching, exposing the journalists who benefited from this orgy in the name of religion.

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