One cold Karachi night
On the night of February 1st, Jibran Nasir – Pakistan’s leading activist – and a handful of peaceful protesters sat on a road in Karachi near the Sindh chief minister’s house for more than 24 hours, demanding the arrest of terrorists responsible for the January 30th, 2015, Shikarpur attack which killed 65 Shias during Friday prayers, and demanding action against banned sectarian organisations. There were only 20 protesters, their average age 25, outnumbered it seemed by riot police with water cannon and batons at the ready.
Protest in Karachi against terrorism and secterian violence. Photo: Kafila
Karachi is a city of more than 20 million inhabitants, yet only 20 young men and women had the will and the courage to protest all night and in to the next day.
I (in New York) and a friend (in Boston) watched this from afar virtually all day long and in to our night, fearing that the police will attack these protesters. We made phone calls to influential friends and associates in Pakistan pleading for help to prevent police action. We rallied friends in the Pakistani diaspora to text and call the police chief for the southern district and we barraged the interior minister for Sindh with text messages at 3am, 4am Pakistan time. And all the while we observed hundreds of people clicking the “like” button on Facebook, telling Jibran what a hero he was. But despite his desperate plea for people to show up physically instead of sending online accolades and tweeting unto dawn, only a handful did so and even fewer stayed.
A relative of mine, who is a psychiatrist, says indifference and helplessness are often signs of a traumatised society. Overtime it gets worse. That gave me some perverse comfort as a plausible explanation until about my fourth phone call to Jibran when it sunk in that perhaps something was terribly wrong and inexplicable, and that it went beyond fear. My heart sank as his voice grew fainter and trailed away in a “Khuda Hafiz”, as if I too were disappointing him and I too were abandoning him and his small band of brothers and sisters.
I shared my despair with this friend in Boston. She lamented with me,
“Fawz remember? The Hazara families sat outside in the cold with their dead for four days, nothing changed. No one in government was moved enough to change anything”.
Yes, how could we ever forget those terrible images of Hazara families in Quetta? That silent mournful protest going on and on. The living sitting with their dead waiting for someone, anyone, to give a damn. We really didn’t give a damn. And on and on the killings went.
I eventually went to sleep; Jibran and these young protestors did not. They were still protesting on that road when I woke up early the next morning in New York. It had been at least 24 solid hours for them. As I continued to write this piece it was late night in Karachi, the protest had entered its second day. The protestors awaited their demands to be met, for the government to declare that murderers will no longer be protected, no matter who they murder.
At 1:30am on Wednesday morning in Pakistan, 3:30pm on Tuesday in New York, Jibran tweeted the following,
It was a huge victory, real and symbolic, a gigantic accomplishment, however short-lived for these few brave souls who stood their ground for 31 hours or more. Did they though serve as examples for more and more young people in Pakistan? That remains to be seen. Because without that kind of relentless pressure the government need not meet any of these demands, which after all resemble many of the actions to be taken under the newly announced National Action Plan against terrorism.
What these protesters had been able to accomplish was to shame the Sindh government and make them admit that, in fact, they were not doing much at all to take on banned sectarian organisations. But it turns out that even naming and shaming weren’t enough.
Who owns our streets?
And as predicted, within a day the Sindh government reneged on the demands, permitting the most murderous of sectarian militias, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), the rebranded anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) to hold a rally for “Kashmir Day,” with full police protection. It appeared optically that the so-called Kashmir Day had officially morphed into “bring out your favourite terrorist day,” throughout Pakistan, utterly flying in the face of any National Action Plan against terrorism whether by the federal government or the provinces. February 5th, 2015, turned the entire civil-military apparatus into aiders and abettors of the very same actors they claimed to be desirous of finishing off in the aftermath of the Peshawar school massacre on December 16, 2014.
If anyone in the ruling classes thought this shameful display on February 5th was poking India in the eye, they are sadly to be disappointed. Not many in India, or even Kashmir for that matter, seemed to really give a damn. However, many in Pakistan felt punched in the gut by witnessing the spectacle of a government blatantly casting its lot with terrorists.
If that were not egregious and offensive enough, the chief minister of Sindh went a step further by ordering the arrest of Jibran Nasir and other compatriots who had joined the barricades once again that day to protest the government’s betrayal of the promise to act against banned militant organisations.
It was the stupidest, if not an all-out criminal, stunt the government of Sindh could possibly attempt because it finally lit the fire in the hearts of those who until now were only Facebook supporters of the protesters. From Nazimabad to New York social media lit up and word spread online that Jibran and others had been arrested. Jibran’s own simple tweet saying “we have been arrested,” went viral. Calls went out for people to rush to the jails where the activists were being taken. Family and friends giving chase to police vans were tweeting the locations real time. “Jail bharo,” “fill the jails” call to action went out across the city.
The grotesque juxtaposition of terrorists freely rallying under police protection while peaceful activists were roughed up and arrested, roused Karachi-wallas into street action. It was no longer about joining a sit-in; it was about wresting back the very streets of Karachi and about physically protecting young activists in police custody. Dawn TV got it pitch perfect when they repeatedly stated,
“By arresting Jibran Nasir and other protesters, today the Sindh government has declared that raising your voice against terrorism is a crime.”
The growing crowds outside the Frere Thana, where most of the activists were taken, the hundreds of phone calls and texts to representatives of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) greatly encouraged the authorities to release the activists within a few hours of their arrest. However, severe and irreversible damage was done to the reputation of Benazir Bhutto’s PPP and the entire ruling elite of Pakistan which was left looking impotent, and worse, complicit with terrorism.
Since February 5th, the future generation of Pakistan is asking their elected representatives “whom do you stand with, the terrorists or with us?” And they have begun asking if what has happened is in fact admittance by the government that the terrorist have defeated us?
DIG Khalique Shaikh and PPP leader Sharmila Farooqi negotiating with protesters outside CM House in Karachi. Photo: PPI
It takes just one
By organising these protests, Jibran Nasir is creating multiple platforms for young Pakistanis to join him in openly and repeatedly raising their voices against terrorism, religious hate and extremist violence. And every day he is proving that he is willing to call out the murderers by name, pull no punches to be safe, identify the malaise, and do something to try and stop Pakistan from sinking deeper into the dark abyss. Even if it means he will do it alone. February 5th will mark the night when several other young leaders emerged from the shadows and on to the front lines.
Since the Peshawar school attack, Jibran has been relentless, even in the face of serious threats. And he is following that most cherished of principles and rarest of paths taken; do not do that which is the popular thing to do, do that which is the right thing to do. For me he is emblematic of a hopeful future for Pakistanis.
But it has not been without its share of controversy for this young leader; he is accused, often all at the same time, of being an ISI/army asset, Mossad, RAW, CIA, PMLN, PPP, PTI, MQM, and this list does not even include the abuse, accusations and threats of the militant extremistslike ASWJ, who rule the streets and whose hate material occupies almost every wall space in Karachi.
Off Facebook and on to the barricades, can we?
When Jibran and these young activists were sitting on a road for 31 hours in solidarity with the Shias and the victims of Shikarpur, I was asking where the others were. Why didn’t the Facebook warriors get off of Facebook and join these brave few? Change is very hard work and unfortunately social media has lulled us into believing that just the act of being online is activism, that by clicking and commenting we’ve joined the barricades. We haven’t. We have in fact left the barricades unprotected and wide open for takeover by extremists and hate mongers who do succeed in bringing out the numbers and owning our streets fearlessly time and time again.
And that is exactly what we witnessed on February 5th. It was ASWJ which occupied in large numbers the very street the peaceful protesters had vacated only hours before.
But in the aftermath of the arrests of Jibran and others, I do predict that the game has changed amongst the youth. This tiny band of activists has upped the ante by walking their talk and moreover by meticulously recording and instantly posting their own actions, statements, testimonials and the statements and actions of those they are challenging. In essence they are bearing witness for all of us.
I am hoping and praying that what the brave few have proven to anyone who cares to learn is that change happens when you take your activism to the streets, when you are willing to sit on a road for 31 hours and even get arrested because it’s the right thing to do and the circumstances demand that the right thing be done.
Without a doubt, whether we like him or not, Jibran Nasir is leading the game change in today’s Pakistan. And moreover he threatens to upend many an established order, most critically forcing a redefinition of activism and what that needs to be in this country, given the existential threat every citizen now faces.
Jibran Nasir and his friends at the protest in Karachi. Photo: Kafila
Be a game changer, not just a tweeter
And surely, as the sun rises, he and a few others will be sitting again with yet another bloodied community in another protest, because we all know it’s only a matter of time before more are made grist for the terrorists’ murderous mill.
But for now here is Jibran Nasir out front, on the front lines and putting at grave risk his own life and limb. Getting roughed up and arrested by a police force not known for its gentle ways. Why is it still that when he looks around him he sees so few in his ranks? But when he looks at his phone there are hundreds cheering him on virtually? Why? I, at least, have no answers. Or maybe I want to shut out what I fear the truth might be.
Maybe, just may be as a country, as a people, we are now dividing up between those who haveblown up and those who have not blown up yet. And those who have not blown up yet do not want to spend their precious time being reminded of those who have been blown up.
I recall what Jibran said to me on the night of February 1st, his tired voice still emphatic with every word,
“Fawzia it is time, for God’s sake, it is time to stop analysing; haven’t we done enough of that already? It is time for Pakistanis to come out and register your voice, show numbers, this is a city of 20 million. Why are they not here with us?”
I don’t know, Jibran, what the answer is to your question. But I know well that you will fight this battle for the most part alone for a long time yet.
Let us pray it is not too long because by then we will all be dead.
On February 15th, the banned terrorist organisation Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), filed an FIR against Jibran Nasir, accusing him of murder of one of their operative in Rawalpindi. Moreover, ASWJ has “accused” him of being “Shia,” which he is not, and a member of a banned Shia organisation. ASWJ has previously recommended that Jibran Nasir be hanged for being an Indian agent and a Hindu sympathiser. The state of Pakistan has permitted such websites to operate freely despite the National Action Plan prohibiting sectarian and hate related speech. And once again the Sindh government has permitted a banned terrorist organisation to hold a rally in Karachi and to threaten peaceful activists. Yet another sign that the state of Pakistan is either impotent or complicit or both.
Meanwhile, Jibran has a simple message for the terrorists and for fellow Pakistanis:
“I volunteered arrest before and will only use legal means to address FIR against me if any. Will set precedent ourselves to uphold rule of law”.
The vigil continues through the night. Photo: Kafila
All the names
Here is a roll call of all the activists who were arrested in Karachi on February 5th for protesting against terrorism, their average age is 25; Khurram Zaki, Mohammed Ali, Osama Bin Iqbal, Jibran Nasir, Yoosha Gokal, Ali Shah, Jaazib Qamar, Shan Ali, Fawad Hussain, Zain Ali, Rashid Rizvi, Muzammal Afzal, Tuffail Ahmad, Ahmed Rehman, Sauman Saeed, Khalid Rao, Maryam Kanwar, Zoya, Sheheryar Khan, Abbas Hyder, M. Mehndi, Sheheryar Naqvi, Mohsin Yousef, Posha Hassan, Murtaza Hussain.