By Special Correspondent
Denouncing Prime Minister Imran Khan as a “political puppet,” prominent Pakistani activists, including former and current members of parliament, have blamed the strong army for the fragility, instability, and failure of the country to support its neighbors.
“Pakistan is ruled by an undisclosed martial law,” said the Pashtun chief and former Senator Afrasiab Khattak at the Fifth Annual Conference of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH).
SAATH is a pro-democracy Pakistani organization co-founded by former Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani and US columnist Dr. Mohammad Taqi. Previous annual SAATH conferences were held in London and Washington, but the participants met virtually this year, according to a statement.
The participants labeled Prime Minister Khan a “military puppet,” he said. Members of the party include politicians, journalists, bloggers, social media critics, and members of civil society, many of whom have been forced into exile in different countries.
Pakistan’s security services have tried to disrupt SAATH meetings in the past and forbade its members living in Pakistan from traveling abroad, but this year the virtual format has allowed many prominent dissidents still in Pakistan to participate, according to the release.
“This is the most dangerous martial law in Pakistan because it has vulgarised and distorted constitutional institutions,” Khattak said in his virtual address to the conference from Pakistan.
“The current military regime is delegitimizing political institutions, going to the extent that intelligence agencies direct members of parliament when to attend sessions and when not to turn up to vote,” he said.
Haqqani noted that Prime Minister Khan had recently publicly accused him and SAATH of undermining Pakistan’s international status. ‘Pakistan’s international standing is being lost due to its policies of encouraging extremism and suppressing freedom, not due to the activism of those fighting for human rights,” he said.
Several speakers – including Rubina Greenwood of the World Sindhi Congress, Tahira Jabeen of Gilgit-Baltistan, Shahzad Irfan of the Seraiki Movement, and Rasool Mohammed of the Pashtun Council of America – pointed out that various minorities in Pakistan have been marginalized and denied their rights.
Irfan said that military interference in politics strengthened the domination of Punjab and was a key factor in the persecution of national and religious minorities. Greenwood said that the only way for Pakistan to prevail over Sindhi and Baloch would be to accept that Pakistan is a multinational state. She said, “Sindh is a historic force that can not be divided or denied its identity.”
Jabeen called for ending “73 years of the political, constitutional, social, economic, geographical and cultural isolation of Gilgit Baltistan” and pitched for an “autonomous setup.”
Shia rights activist Jaffer Mirza lamented anti-Shia violence and blamed the authorities for legitimizing anti-Shia politics through legislation, especially the Tahaffuz-e-Islam (Protection of Islam) Bill.
“The higher ranks of the Pakistan Army must realize that a truly elected government must be in place to bring Pakistan from the brink where the current regime has brought it,” said former ambassador, Kamran Shafi, who is also a retired military officer.
“All that the COAS, General Bajwa, and ISI have to do is to step back from politicking, and let politics be,” Shafi said, adding that it was “the only way out of the morass our poor country finds itself in.”
He said that even in the colonial era, the British Indian army was subject to civilian supremacy.
According to Taqi army rule had taken Pakistan from one disaster to another.
“The narrative of patriotism has been framed around the army and competing worldviews about Pakistan and those who do not fit the army’s parameters are ostracised as rebellious, treasonous, and even blasphemous,” he said.
Prominent speakers and participants in the conference included Pashtun women’s activist Gulalai Ismail, exiled journalist Taha Siddiqi and Tahir Gora, and human rights defender Marvi Sirmed.