LAHORE : AGHS Legal Aid Cell’s flagship digital media project, Voicepk.net, in collaboration with South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), organised a hybrid regional conference on Saturday titled “Democratising South Asia in the digital age.
Munizae Jahangir, the organiser of the conference said, “The purpose of the conference was to connect young South Asian human rights activists, lawyers and journalists to address common human rights issues effecting South Asia and to promote regional peace-building.”
Speakers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka joined via video-link while Pakistanis from various parts of the country, including Swat, Quetta and Waziristan, attended in person. Prominent speakers at this youth conference included Ammar Ali Jan, Manzoor Pashteen, former Aam Admi party convener in India, Sumail Singh Sidhu, Reema Omar, Nidhi Razdan NDTV senior anchor person, journalist Gharida Farooqi, co founder women action network from Sri Lanka Shreen Saroor, Usama Khilji, Muhammad Tehseen convener of Pak-India forum for peace democracy, Afghanistan’s women rights activist Pashtana Dorani and Orzala Ashraf Nemat, Pakistan’s education activist Shad Begum and Kainat Riaz. Over 300 students, activists, media workers and lawyers attended in person while the conference was live streamed across South Asia.
In the first session, challenges to youth participation in politics in South Asia, was moderated by professor and President of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement (HKM), Dr Ammar Ali Jan. Manzoor Pashteen, Chair of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), arrived at the conference from Waziristan, while student activist Sadia Baloch arrived from Quetta.
Sumail Singh Sindhu, a historian, Punjabi culture activist and Director of ADARA MARCH (farmers protest) joined from India, with Prabodha Rathnayaka, a human rights activist and attorney-at-law, representing Sri Lanka.
Rathnayaka stated that Sri Lanka’s youth are at the forefront of agitation against the prevailing economic crisis, and therefore faced severe repression from the government, which included bans on free movement and political participation.
Sindhu said, “Neo-liberal global economics is a major factor behind the absence of trade union movements in India.” With regards to the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s (JNU) student movement, Sindhu stated that it was organic and organised by marginalised students and therefore was attacked by the state. Sidhu said that in India mainstream political parties had lost favour with people. He said “Anger against neo liberal economics helped Aam Admi party gain support from farmers, small traders and professionals in Indian Punjab.”
The second session, Digital witch-hunts: who is the churail?, was moderated by activist, feminist and South Asia Legal Adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Reema Omer. The panel featured Pakistani anchors Gharidah Farooqi and Munizae Jahangir; prominent anchor and Consulting Editor of NDTV Nidhi Razdan from India; human rights activist and feminist Ahmed Tholal from the Maldives; consultant for the INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre Damith Chandimal Damith Chandimal from Sri Lanka; and Content Editor for Ekattor TV in Bangladesh ,Naznin Munni.
Razdan said that what is common amongst South Asia is the online harassment of women. She said that she had file a case against a stalker who turned out to be a professor. She said that ruling BJP was behind the troll campaign against her. Chandimal from Sri Lanka noted that the economic and political cirisis in Sri Lanka has diverted attention from a host of pertinent issues, including but not limited to the harassment of human rights defenders and media persons.
Farooqi stated that online harassment is not limited to mere trolling, but can transform into real-life violence. Farooqi accused the PTI of organising harassment campaigns against her. Tholal observed that misogyny links South Asia, with there being impunity for individuals and groups responsible for online harassment of women. Bangladesh’s well known female anchor, Munni related her experience of targeted online harassment, which she stated was nothing short of a nightmare.
Jahangir was of the view that those who spread hate speech should be held accountable through the legal process. She said that silence is not an option in the digital witch hunt.
Saroop Ijaz, Senior Counsel of the Asia Division of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), moderated the session titled ‘Role of the state in communalism’. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Research and Communications Lead Maheen Pracha, and Assistant Professor at the Forman Christan College (FCC) Dr Ayra Indrias Patras represented Pakistan in the session. Indian human rights activist Dev Desai, Co-founder of the Women Action Network in Sri Lanka Shreen Saroor, and advocate for the Supreme Court of Bangladesh Muhammad Tajul Islam constituted the international lineup.
Saroor told the audience that Sri Lankan laws are extremely problematic for minority communities, providing the example of war crimes committed against the island nation’s Tamil community and the complete absence of any accountability and impunity. Desai observed that while India may be perhaps the largest democracy in the world, it has different laws for its minorities, and held that non-violence is the only potent weapon against communalism. Islam was of the view that political parties, non-government organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders in Bangladesh can bring an end to communalism if they act with will.
Dr Patras said that women from the minority community who have converted for the sake of their husbands’ live in ostracization.
The session on “Closed borders, open websites,” was moderated by digital rights activist and Director of Bolo Bhi Usama Khilji. The Pakistani panel comprised Mohammad Tahseen, Convener for the Pakistan India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIFPD); Programme Manager for the Digital Rights Foundation Seerat Khan; and Aisha Sarwari digital rights activist , while Muhammad Saimum Reza Talukder, Senior Lecturer at the BRAC University’s School of Law, joined in from Bangladesh. Journalist and founding member of the South Asia Peace Action Network (SAPAN), Mandira Nayar also participated.
Tahseen stated that closed borders have to open as people are bound to gain their freedom, therefore efforts to open borders in South Asia must continue. Talukder from Bangladesh believed that the state, citizens and digital platforms share responsibility when existing in online spaces.
Seerat Khan from DRF observed that not all citizens have access to the internet, especially women. Sarwari held that only a tyrannical government would resort to restricting the freedoms of its citizens.
Journalist and Editor-in-Chief of Voicepk.net, Munizae Jahangir, moderated the fifth session titled ‘Digital education in the age of the Taliban’. Shad Begum, Founding Director of the Association for Behavior and Knowledge Transformation (ABKT) from South Waziristan, and scholar and educational rights campaigner Ibrash Pasha from Lower Dir attended the event, while Kainat Riaz, co-founder of Beydaar and one of two other girls injured in the attack on Malala Yousafzai, joined in via videolink.
Representing Afghanistan were Pashtana Durrani, Executive Director of LEARN Afghanistan, and Dr Orzala Ashraf Nemat, scholar and founder of the Women and Youth Leadership Centre.
Nemat said that the Taliban are unmoved by international pressure over the ban on girls’ education and said that it was unfortunate that during direct negotiations between the Taliban and US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, the Taliban leadership was not made to commit to respecting women’s right to education.
Durrani said that young school girls were protesting in Herat where the Taliban have banned girls from going to school. Pashtana said that if the Taliban ban women from going to school in Kandahar.
The last session of the day, titled ‘Disaster relief through digital platforms’, was moderated by Usama Khilji. Bushra Mahnoor and Anum Khalid ,founders of Mahwari Justice, and Qaiser Javed, President of the Progressive Students Collective (PSC) spoke in person.
Mahnoor related how students used social media to launch a campaign for the provision of sanitary pads for women affected by the floods. Talking about the PSC’s flood relief activities, Javed stated that the collective used its Facebook page to connect with flood affectees across the country, with Twitter proving to be particularly useful in conveying appeals for aid.
The conference concluded with the commitment that young people across South Asia should campaign for soft visa regime, so that their potential is realised and so they have more access to opportunities.