View Full Version : Spirit of the arts lobby - ABBAS NASIR - 9th May 2015

9th May 2015, 01:45 PM
A NEWS photograph of the Karachi University arts lobby showing defiant participants of a seminar on the missing Baloch earlier this week triggered a flood of memories with the mind zooming in and out of events spanning 35 years.

The defiant participants were forced to gather in the lobby after having been locked out of the auditorium by the university authorities presumably on account of the pressure from the security agencies which, in the case of Balochistan, deal with any expression of human rights concerns as they would a foreign-funded hostile act.

It was befitting then that the organisers quickly chose to go ahead with their seminar in the arts lobby that, over the years, has been a proud venue for many acts of defiance and sacrifice for the cause of free speech and upholding of democratic values.

The defiant participants were forced to gather in KU’s arts lobby after having been locked out of the auditorium by the university authorities.
Of particular personal interest was a bench on which the seminar speakers, including Mama Qadeer, sat as the audience mostly took up the lobby floor before them. In the early 1980s, some of us used to sit on the very bench and witness sad, bloody events and lament the follies being committed by the state which would come back to haunt our beloved country.

Yes, those at the university, when it reopened after a prolonged closure following the execution of the ousted prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, would remember well the oppression unleashed by the military regime as well as its surrogate student entity, the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba.

It seemed upheaval, mostly dissident protests, in educational institutions took away from the normality claim of the Zia regime so the task of keeping the dissidents in check was farmed out to the IJT and the Jamaat-i-Islami’s student wing was given a carte blanche including use of violence to achieve this goal.

I remember well how Qadeer Abid, a soft-spoken and totally non-violent (and unarmed of course) student activist belonging to the Peoples Students Federation, was shot in the head and killed by an IJT ‘Thunder Squad’ member in an effort to overwhelm a PSF protest. There must have been dozens of witnesses to the murder but unsurprisingly nobody was ever charged, even arrested, for it.

This violent culture that the IJT first introduced to the Karachi University was going to end up taking so many young lives including those of its own members over the following months and years. But in many instances those killed belonged to the category of ‘who live by the sword, die by the sword’.

Poignantly, not far from this bench, which the campaigners against the enforced disappearances used, in one of the corridors my good friend Hasil (Bizenjo) Baloch, who then headed the left-wing, anti-Zia United Students Movement (USM) was shot and injured. Today, his party leads the Balochistan coalition and finds itself in the opposite camp to the ‘missing’ campaigners.

This was a tumultuous period in the region. The year 1979 which saw Mr Bhutto’s execution at home, also saw the Shah of Iran toppled in a popular revolution and the march of the Soviet troops into Afghanistan at the behest of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan faction at the helm in Kabul.

When the Pakistani military regime readily decided to join the fight against the Soviets, it was at the Karachi University campus in general and the arts lobby in particular that any individual or student organisation raising a voice against Pakistan joining the US-led clandestine war in Afghanistan using religious extremist proxies was seen with disdain and contempt usually reserved for those convicted of high treason.

Need one say more about the consequences of that (mis)adventure now with the benefit of hindsight? It has torn the very fabric of society, militarising it in the process; creating polarisation of a poisonous intolerant kind; and the cost to Pakistan in terms of sons and daughters killed is still mounting. Given this backdrop, it doesn’t seem right or pleasant to say: We told you so.

But surely those who were advocating for awareness of the dangers of that policy were silenced or rendered largely irrelevant, given the oppression. But as we did then we must do our duty today even if one draws the ire of the self-styled patriots who can’t differentiate between difference of opinion and something graver, punishable by the harshest penalty.

Looking at the coverage of Balochistan in particular across the media, I must say I feel privileged to write for a paper whose editor remains committed to freedom of expression, of saying it like it is. I must concede it can’t be easy, given the sort of pressures being brought to bear on all forms of dissent these days.

As editor, I recall receiving a request conveyed by a state functionary ‘from the highest in the land to forget Balochistan for a while’, after Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed and the forces launched a ‘clean-up’ operation in the province. Of course, this newspaper reinforced its reporting on and from Balochistan.

For this ‘crime’ the newspaper faced a punitive advertising cut which cost the paper in excess of Rs160 million (if I remember correctly) over eight months or so but the Dawn management stood by the editor without a moment’s hesitation and refused to negotiate with the government.

Admittedly, this is exceptional. But for there to be any hope of a future where we can take as much pride in our freedoms as we do in grand infrastructure projects the spirit of the arts lobby needs to be kept alive.