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Defeaning silence

Condemnatory actions taken against Mohammad Hanif’s satirical account of Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule is the latest restriction against the freedom of expression in Pakistan

Defeaning silence

Pakistan's consistent claims that it respects its literati and holds its journalists and academics in high esteem exploded like ' A case of exploding mangoes', authored by Mohammad Hanif, the British Pakistani scribe and writer. His 2008 magnum opus, by the same name, dominated the literary scene, carrying a poignant satirical account of President Zia ul Haq and his regime with a thrust on his death in an air crash suspected to have been caused by a mango crate's midair explosion.

Very recently, Hanif got the Urdu translation(Phattay Amon ka case) of the book and the Urdu publishing house, Maktaba Daniyal, in Karachi. The author blames the ISI for organising the raid in confiscating hundreds of copies of the book without assigning any plausible or convincing reason for their seizures. On its part, ISI has flatly denied any complicity in raiding and confiscating the Urdu books and instead blamed the author for going for cheap publicity for the sale of his works. Meanwhile, Eizaz-ul-Haq, the son of military dictator Zia is believed to have filed a lawsuit of defamation to tune of a billion Pakistani rupees against Mohammad Hanif for maligning Zia through the hard-hitting satire.

Whatever reasons are in public domain, it's evidently clear that the present Pakistani establishment does not want Urdu copies of ' Exploding mangoes' to hit the stands as it strikingly exposes the military under General Zia and the working of the ISI under his rule. Though fiction, the book very subtly and intelligently exposes the functioning of the army set up during Zia's eleven-year-old spell, pushing the country to religious fundamentalism of extreme proportions including Islamising the powerful army by injecting hard religious practices as seen never before. The book also carries good humour in its tenor while attacking the army.

It, therefore, becomes very interesting to know why this particular time is chosen by the intelligence and security agencies in Pakistan to confiscate these books which remain untouched for the last eleven years. What could be the possible provocation? The Imran Khan-led government, which has completed more than one and a half years in office and vociferously claims to be tolerant and allowing a free press to function under 'Naya Pakistan' should have no reasons to order a crackdown on the publication. Its sense of insecurity is baffling or it is possible that Gen. Zia-ul-Haq's legacy still lives on in the cantonments with a fixed mindset of religious bigotry which may further get radicalised if the Urdu versions of the book were allowed to reach a wide spectrum of military personnel. That's probably why the ISI had stepped in to initiate seizures early this month.

As it is, Pakistan is loaded with countless problems. On the political front, the opposition continues to be critical of the government's policies, the judiciary awarded death sentence to Pervez Musharraf, cracked the judicial whip on Gen. Bajwa's extension and the general political instability caused by Nawaz Sharif's 'refuge' in the UK. Other causes for contention were- the FATF oversights over Pakistani links with terror groups, fledgeling economy and the constant pressure of Saudi Arabia on Pakistan to maintain distance from Malaysia (recent KL Islamic summit with no participation by Pakistan) and a host of other complex issues.

Amid all these prevailing challenges, aggressively coming down on proscribing publications and that too in a brazen manner, exposes Pakistan's hollow claims that freedom of expression remains untouched in this country. The latest assault on Maktaba Daniyal is the best illustration to buttress this argument.

While dwelling upon the freshest case of encroachment of the ISI in curbing the press freedom, it would also appear pertinent to mention that Mohammad Hanif has also been a columnist for the prestigious New York Times and one of his articles captioned "Pakistan's triangle of hate: Taliban, army and India" was removed from viewing and the column showed up as an empty page. Such blatant and unethical intervention in stifling the media is perhaps more a routine than an exception. The pattern continues possibly because it's the armed forces which are calling the shots and the political establishment has a feeble voice to register protests, if at all.

In the not so distant past too, we have seen regular measures to curb press freedom. The age-old daily 'Dawn' was under virtual siege and many pre-programmed TV programmes were made to vanish from the air by the express intervention of the army. Hence, both the print and electronic media remain targets of unworthy impositions of relations incompatible in a practising democracy.

Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator of Pakistan for eleven long years led a policy of taking Pakistan to a religious low in the name of faith. It's high time the political leadership extricates itself from the parochial regressive policies. It should surge ahead, distancing itself from the medieval mindset. Giving its population leeway to enjoy the liberty of reading books, even if satirical, is a positive move towards steady progressive thought, at least for the present generation. Let the Urdu version of the ' Exploding mangoes ' get embedded amongst the youth so that they get to know about the ills of the theocratic state.

Religious extremism has reached dangerous levels in Pakistan and fresh intelligence reports say that in the wake of the killing of Iranian General Qaseem Soleimani, apprehensions have been raised regarding the breakout of sectarian violence in the region, obviously insinuating the Shias as the targets. Pakistan's report on the safety of Shia minorities can be safely described as bad. The terror scene is also poor. Only on Friday, January 10, a powerful suicide bomb killed more than 15 people praying in a Quetta mosque. This was the second terror attack in Baluchistan within a week. Suspicion is pointed towards Hizbul Ahrar which is a breakaway faction of a dreaded terror group. It has specific plans to hit out at intelligence and security outfits. Military and police targets apart, killing devotees, particularly on a holy day (Friday) exposes the threshold of tolerance. In this scenario, banning or confiscating books of popular nature will further promote radicalised feelings.

Seizures of Hanif's Urdu books has drawn universal condemnation by press circles and human rights organisations . Ironically, it also endorses a well-established view in the intelligentsia quarters in Pakistan which described the curbing of freedom scene as " Extreme fear and self-censorship, media freedom under threat in Pakistan."

Shantanu Mukharji is a retired IPS officer and a security analyst. He is also the former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are strictly personal

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