Writer Amar Jaleel’s Vilification Is Another Attack On Freedom Of Expression
The eminent Sindh-based writer Amar Jaleel has been under attack by the right-wing circles for the past few days. The more extreme groups including an infamous publication from Karachi have incited violence against him for his views. Prior to the current wave of attacks, an old video of him reading at the 2017 Sindh Literature was circulated on social media which has ignited the current controversy. In the video, he speaks about the state of freedoms in Pakistan and reads an allegorical short story of his relationship with the Creator where both are interdependent, and the narrator asks questions that afflict the human mind. Jaleel’s short stories and columns have a peculiar literary style, and his readers are aware of that. His vilification is another attack on freedom of expression
In fact, nothing in that video can be termed as offensive. Jaleel in the long-standing traditions of poetic expressions in Persian, Urdu and Sindhi poses questions for God Almighty in a story that he reads. The more famous style of such a dialogue with the Divine is Iqbal’s Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa composed in the early twentieth century.
Amar Jaleel is being targeted simply for the crime of thinking and questioning that has become a taboo in Pakistan. Sadly, generations that have grown up in an Islamo-nationalist environment consider any critical line of argumentation as blasphemy. In the same 2017 video, Jaleel is lamenting that there is no freedom of expression in Pakistan. In fact, he asks the moderator: “Where is it [the freedom]?”
Jaleel is in mid-80s and for a country to mistreat a creative genius is simply shameful. His work has been acknowledged by the state itself as he was awarded the Pride of Performance a few years ago.
All the usual suspects are baying for his blood — from the Sunni Tehrik and JUI-F to the new Barelvi power show called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). They are threatening legal action and public mobilization. Perhaps the most shocking of such expressions is a video by a cleric, Pir Sarhandi, based in Umerkot in Sindh where he is advocating violence in front of a charged crowd.
While Amar Jaleel lives under fear, a social media user Sarmad Sultan reportedly was abducted from his home. Sarmad is active on Twitter and posts threads on Pakistan’s history and politics and has created a large online audience. He was allegedly frisked away by law enforcement or intelligence agencies (the details are unclear) and released after 48 hours. A robust social media campaign entailed tweets from leaders of the political parties and civil society activists who were appalled at the continued crackdown on online expression.
Earlier, an advocate from the Punjab, Muhammad Shafiq, was also detained by the ‘agencies’ for his online activity that is in the main critical of the military and its role in politics.
Pakistanis online are growing by the hour and that is celebrated across the society as it opens new gateways for education, commerce and social networking. Yet, these spaces are being closely watched by the state, the extremists as well as troll brigades with the single aim of muzzling expression.
The internet regulation rules of February 2020 give unbridled disproportionate powers to authorities especially the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block or remove digital content that “harms, intimidates or excites disaffection” towards government and state. While its role is not clear, the deep state has overarching influence as the ‘backchannel’ for internet surveillance.
It is not a coincidence that as Jaleel and Sultan faced the wrath of right wing and state heavy-handedness, a new Pakistan Freedom of Expression Assessment Index was released earlier this month, giving the country a score of 30 points out of 100. The assessment was based on six factors, namely: legal environment, press freedom, digital expression, pluralism, the socioeconomic and political situation, and protection from threats to expression.
The report also notes that at least eight media persons were killed, 36 journalists were attacked, 10 were arrested, and as many as 23 instances of arbitrary detentions for reporting and online expression were recorded across Pakistan during a single year. Women journalists have been targeted through coordinated online attacks for their reporting on government policies and political developments.
The Freedom House had noted the government control of online spaces. International rights group Human Rights Watch has consistently highlighted issues related to restricted freedom of expression. The usual response in Pakistan is to dismiss these reports as propaganda or part of some conspiracy to undermine the country’s sovereignty. But few, especially within the government circles, are willing to face the truth.
If artists, writers and citizens are to be muzzled, then perhaps the farce of democracy should be done away with. After experiencing a partial opening up from 2008-2016, Pakistan’s fledgling democracy has transformed into a hybrid regime with no signs of change anytime soon.
The writer is founding editor of NayaDaur Media. Formerly, he was editor of Daily Times, The Friday Times and a broadcaster at Capital TV and Express News. He is the author of Delhi By Heart, The Fractious Path and Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts. www.razarumi.com