Escaping death in the Land of the Pure
Finally, I countenanced what I had been dreading for quite some time. Journalists and media houses being under threat is a well-known story in conflict-ridden Pakistan. I had also heard about my name being on a few hit-lists but I thought these were tactics to scare dissenters and independent voices. But this was obviously an incorrect assessment of the situation.
On Friday night, when I had planned to visit Data Darbar after my television show, my car was attacked by “unknown” (a euphemism for lethal terror outfits) assailants. The minute I heard the first bullet, the Darwinian instinct made me duck under and I chose to lie on the back of the car.
This near death experience with bullets flying over me and shattered window glass falling over me reminded me of the way my own country was turning into a laboratory of violence. Worse, that when I saved myself, it was not without a price. A young man, who had been working as my driver for sometime, was almost dead. I stood on a busy road asking for help and not a single car stopped.
A crowd had gathered and I was seeking their assistance almost like someone in a hysterical sub-continental film. The nearest hospital was a private enterprise, which initially refused to treat all three of us. I had to protest, after begging on the street and then seeking emergency medical aid. Suddenly, all that afflicts Pakistan became clear: the violence, the impunity for murderers, the failing values of a society and privatisation of essential public services.
Within minutes, my driver was declared dead, my wounds were cleaned and a third victim of barbarity struggled with a fast receding blood count. Thankfully, officers from the Punjab Police were helpful and enabled me to sort out things. This was harrowing and I became an object of all that I have condemned in recent years.
I am now at a safe location, unable to move out and have been told that my case is exceptional with six men — most armed — had attempted to eliminate me and they failed. And that the security agencies can only protect me if I remain locked up in a “safe” location.
So what is my fault, I have been wondering? I am a relatively small fry in the media and opinion industry. I am a recent entrant in the mass (electronic) media, but my views, I am told, are dangerous and invite trouble. So, I wish to ask my well-wishers the following questions: is raising the issue of minority rights unacceptable? Is demanding the inclusion of Jinnah’s August 11 speech in our Constitution and state behaviour unacceptable?
I have written a book on the shared history of India and Pakistan and this irked some. I have argued for rational engagement with the West and the outside world and that is not kosher. I reject conspiracy theories as I prefer reason over totem and this does not fit in a mindscape that considers the outside, external enemies.
Pakistan’s journalists face the oddest of challenges. They are being coerced into silence or singing praises of extremists and advocating legitimacy for their operations. Pakistan’s politicians have almost given up, as their private and public statements are at variance and they have accepted that this “new Pakistan” of fear, threats and unpunished violence is what they have to deal with.
I also know that I am not alone. There are dozens of other voices that have to be silenced by some quarters. These voices are a threat as they stand by civilian victims of terror and shun attacks on our security forces. These are voices, which also refuse to make martyrs out of terrorists. And they also hold that the greatest blasphemy is undermining humanity and using faith for spreading hatred.
The choice for me is stark. I am not willing to accept death as an option. Nor am I going to accept forced silence. I am grateful to all those who have shown support for my plight.
But it would be far more important if our collective outrage turns into public pressure to change the direction of the state and stop it from committing hara-kiri at the altar of a fabricated ideology or regional ambitions. There are no good or bad extremists. And there can be no justification for any form of violence by private actors. Who else would know, if not me?
I am haunted by the fact that a precious life has been lost while some people wanted to target me. More than that, I am worried that there may be many more lives at risk. I am not too hopeful if the current set of federal and provincial governments would deliver on security and public safety.
There is little or no will to tackle the camel that has entered the Pakistani tent and is displacing reason and humanity. Yet, there is no other recourse. So I appeal to the government to provide me security and not let me remain a victim of an ideology asserted with bullets and bombers.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2014