Saturday, 8 June 2013

Afrasiab Khattak: An Unlikely Crusader

-originally published in 2000 by Pakistanlink

by S.A Hussein

A few weeks ago I had the rare opportunity to meet one of the most remarkable men from Pakistan. Though I had known him for over ten years through his lucid and incisive commentaries on social and political issues and had talked to him on the phone, I had not met him.

Afrasiab Khattak is that rare breed of Pukhtun intellectuals who having come from a feudal background, has transcended cultural, religious and social barriers to become a liberal crusader for the rights of women and minorities in Pakistan. In a patriarchal society where ancient tribal codes and narrow and often skewed interpretation of religion leave very little room for civil debate, his unabashed stand for human rights is refreshing if surprising. In these uncertain times many Pakistani liberals have either changed their stripes or have decided to remain quiet.
During the turbulent 70’s Khattak was a student leader on the campus of the University of Peshawar where he studied English literature and law. His advocacy for the legitimate rights of smaller provinces of Pakistan got him in trouble with the military rulers. He was tried for incitement and opposing the ideology of Pakistan. At the trial the prosecution could not explain the ideology that he was accused of opposing. He was sentenced and spent three years in jail.

A few years later in 1978 during General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule he was again imprisoned for opposing the military rule and spent fourteen months behind bars. Fearing for his life after his release- he was tipped off by friends in the government- he crossed the Khyber Mountains into neighboring Afghanistan. It was only after the death of General Zia in a mysterious plane crash in 1989 that he was able to return home after two years.

Over time his narrow nationalistic fervor has broadened to include the larger issues of human rights in Pakistan. These include civil rights of women and religious minorities, political rights of common citizens, restoration of democracy and organizing public forums to achieve peace with India. Khattak is following the path that was trail blazed by Asma Jahangir his predecessors as president of the Human rights Commission of Pakistan (HRC).

As president of HRC his work is cut out for him. To champion the cause of women and minorities in a society that hides behind the fa├žade of religion and traditions is not easy. The victims and their advocates, both, become the target of violence. The case of Samia Sarwar who was murdered in the office of her lawyer Hina Jilani is a good example. The lawyer barely escaped with her life.

Every year in Pakistan, according to conservative estimates, one thousand women lose their lives for refusing to abide by family’s dictate about marriage and divorce. There are 800 rapes that are reported to the police. Untold acts of violence against women go unreported. Often in rape cases the woman is thrown in jail because of her inability to produce necessary witnesses as required under the draconian Hadood Ordinance.

The police and the courts are ambivalent toward such acts, the religious leaders look the other way and the politicians are afraid to oppose the abuses. In a stunning act of cowardice the Senate of Pakistan refused to condemn such practices last year when a resolution was presented before the now defunct body. In a shameful about face, the then Senator Javed Iqbal, son of the celebrated poet, a liberal retied justice of the Lahore High Court, refused to support the resolution. There were many others.

But Khattak is making progress. A few months ago at the annual meeting of the HRC, General Pervez Musharaf, the military Chief Executive showed up and endorsed the agenda of the Commission. Just months earlier Khattak had demanded that the General hand over power to the civilian representatives.

For his work Khattak, has been called a communist, a heathen, an enemy of Islam, a traitor to the country and an agent of the West. Untrue as they are, Mr. Khattak accepts all these attributes with good grace and a hearty laugh.

Afrasiab Khattak can disagree without being disagreeable. Two years ago we were on the opposite sides of a heated ethno-political debate about changing the name of our province of NWFP. He supported the move; I vehemently opposed it. We both used the op-ed pages of Pakistani newspapers to argue our views. Though the measure was defeated at the federal level, it made us friends.

His recent visit to Toledo was to renew contact with a onetime adversary who is now his great admirer.
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