Human rights — a short story By Arifa Noor

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PARLIAMENT has become so incidental to our politics, we rarely notice small but significant changes taking place within its hallowed halls. This isn’t just because of our parties and their way of doing governance, though they share a greater responsibility than others.

Another reason for this has been television channels — controversial statements, ambiguous bayans which lead to headlines and breaking news, and fights between politicians are now brought to our homes every night, seven days a week. With these daily bulletins, few are interested in the speeches being made on the floor of parliament or the confrontations taking place there. (Even the parties themselves prefer those who can frequent talk shows over those who can carry out legislative work or deliver meaningful speeches on the floor).

As a result, parliamentary happenings have been reduced to the bits and pieces — mostly statements — appearing in news stories, which pale in front of the shorter, spicier talk shows (with a variety of politicians). No wonder then that the star journalists of the olden days, the reporter in the press gallery, assigned to report the proceedings, has now been replaced by the anchor with a prime-time show. It is the latter who the politicians now woo.

There is, however, another result of this transition to television — in times of print, the various committees of parliament provided much fodder to the hacks. Most of us in the business always knew that even if parliament was not in session, the committee meetings meant a nugget or two could always be found in a dusty meeting room here and there. And sometimes ever more. For example, in 2010, the health secretary told a Senate health committee that relief operations for the flood survivors were not possible in Jacobabad because the Shehbaz airbase was with the Americans. The story echoed for days in Islamabad. And in the heady days after 2008, the Public Accounts Committee, led by Chaudhry Nisar, whose vocal cords needed no rest, led the charge against the Musharraf regime much to our delight. But since then it too has become rather lacklustre.

This time around, the Ganges is flowing in reverse but no one has any answers.

And this is why perhaps, us oldies who still remember the good ol’ days were happy with Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who allowed us a brief trip down memory lane. Heading the human rights committee of the Senate, he highlighted issues close to us bleedin’ heart types.

He allowed stories about the people to resonate in a building which has become rather distant from the citizens it is supposed to represent. And apart from the angry speeches in parliament, stories about the people began in parliament and then made their way to the screen.

He called in young students who had been charged with sedition for their sin of protesting for their rights on the roads of Lahore. He invited over young Baloch students who told us how they were pressured by the staff of their educational institutes. He took up cudgels for Sarmad Khoosat’s film, Zindagi Tamasha, when it ran into trouble with the righteous lot. Detractors say he cherry-picked issues and left out X,Y,Z but at least A, B, C got highlighted. And in Pakistan, every little bit matters.

In all of this, he was supported by the rest of the committee. Most people on the Senate human rights committee seemed to feel equally strongly about such issues. But times have changed; parliament is now a sideshow, and human rights have always been one.

And so it seems we are going back to normal — in the dust kicked up by the Senate elections in March, Khokhar’s relationship with his party leadership was also a casualty. Even before the Senate committees were finalised, few expected him back.

But what we didn’t expect was that the committee would go back to the government because the PML-N exchanged it for defence!

Senior members of the Senate say that the human rights committee traditionally goes to the opposition, while defence goes to the government. Yet this time around, the Ganges is flowing in reverse but no one has any answers.

From the PPP, Senator Sherry Rehman is the only one who has bothered to offer some explanation. “Lot of opposition to PPP holding chair of HR in both houses so it [chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Human Rights] was given to PML N. But after N traded it for defence directly [with] Govt, Sen Reza Rabbani and I spent the whole day trying to get the committee back from Govt in a trade for IPC [Interprovincial Committee] once N had given it to them. But told no.”

The government is probably relieved that the committee will no longer be embarrassing them for its poor human rights record.

The PML-N is quiet. Not a peep from them, even if asked. The party can hold forth eight hours a day on all things principled such as ‘vote ko izzat do’ and an executive’s constitutional rights but it has offered no explanation for choosing defence over human rights. Perhaps, it is going to use this platform to point the guns at its chosen enemy or to underline its pragmatism. We don’t know and neither do we know if this exchange was a party decision or the choice of a lone ranger. Mushahid Hussain is now heading the defence committee.

But to be fair, the PML-N is not alone in its disinterest.

A cursory glance at the channels over the weekend showed the usual debates. The growth rate, the politics of the opposition and who said what and what it could have meant — all the usual masala was there but little about this small, side story about a Senate committee.

And in this silence lies the real story about how important human rights are to us, as a people. No wonder, the previous Senate committee and its proceedings may end up as an aberration. The short story some of us will remember while the majority is transfixed by the saga about elections, the establishment, growth rates and other hefty themes. Perhaps the big shots feel that once the saga ends in a happily ever after, the short story will also, automatically, get a happy ending.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2021