LONDON – A HAVEN FOR DISSENTERS


It was in 1968 that I came to London as part of eight journalists from Commonwealth countries given Commonwealth Press Union Scholarship for mid-age newsmen for training in advance journalism. Our stay here was multi-faceted, very well-choreographed and highly educational. Our group was taken around UK from London to Edinburgh and various places in between to the extent that we could claim that we had seen more of United Kingdom than most of the local population.

Most fascinating were the blue commemorative plaques that we found everywhere on buildings and houses spelling out clearly of the distinguished people having lived in them—whether as free citizens or in exile having run away from their homeland on being prosecuted for the ideological causes dear to them. It was moment of pride when our official guide took us to a blue-plaque building on Russell Road near Earls Court where Pakistan’s founder Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah lived for some time when he was doing his bar at Lincolns Inn.

We were also taken to the pub in the area where Quaid used to relax in the evening. Many years later I also traced the posh bungalow in Hampstead Heath where the Quaid spent many years practicing law. Incidentally, the ideologue of the Communist Revolution Karl Marx also lived somewhere nearby. Besides, of course romantic poet John Keats and father of Modern Psychiatry Sigmund Fried. Nearer to the former residence of Pakistan High Commissioner in St Johns Wood, in Swiss Cottage area, on Kings Road you come across a flat that has a plaque stating that the place had been an abode for Dr Ambedkar–the man who gave India its secular constitution. Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Latin America and last of the French Bourbon King Charles lived in exile in Park Lane area in the vicinity of Hilton Hotel.

Each London street has a story of its own to tell and each one of them offer to–whether you are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, Communist or Socialists etc.–landmarks that make one proud of the fact that indelible imprints of our great men and women are being protected and preserved in London-a city that has come to be our own in so many ways.

It used to be my firm belief that even those who consider violence as the sole means to their ends, would never be unkind to the great city of London and its people who have developed painstakingly since centuries, that spirit of tolerance and co-existence, that unreserved and unqualified commitment to Voltaire’s hitherto unsurpassed concept that one might disagree with whatever your beliefs are but one would defend with one’s life your right to free expression.

In most difficult times in history London’s unprecedented level of tolerance has never surrendered to imposed or self-imposed restrictions. It has served as a haven and a sanctuary for dissenters who are either hunted or wanted by their own governments. London streets, lanes and by-lanes punctuated by coloured heritage plaques remind us of the foreign rebellious souls that sought refuge here, to preach and practice freely their political-nay all other-beliefs. Hunted and wanted in their own countries, they blossomed in London’s free air and gave shape and substance to their ideas that changed the course of history, opened floodgates for revolutions and made liberty and freedom a household phenomenon.

Being an oasis of freedom in a vast world that is being torn by conflict ignited by leaders fighting a life-long battle with ignorance and obscurantist forces opposed to them following 9-11, I had believed that London would remain beyond the pale of the terrorist violence. No other country in the world or people as British have as much tolerance, resilience, perseverance, determination and indefatigable courage to confront coolly challenges that do not offer any solutions. Their understanding of elements and circumstances that come in conflict with retrogressive authoritarian forces opposed to dissent and democracy elsewhere, have made British preserve London as a sanctuary for voices silenced in their own countries. Can there be a better example of greatness than the fact that despite intelligence reports many of the religious extremists spitting venom from the pulpit, have not only been allowed to live here, they have been given social security sustenance and when the government tried to extradite some of them, British courts did not allow that to happen.

Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was one of the rarest British forthright politicians. He had shown courage by resigning when Blair joined Bush in the illegal war. In the new world order where evil is justified on the ground of expediency, Robin Cook as the British Foreign Secretary, had taken pains to run an ethical foreign policy. Had Tony Blair listened to saner voices such as Robin’s, the course of history would not have become so bloody as it seems to be getting with each passing day with the countless number of deaths of innocent people. I tend to believe late statesman Tony Benn rather than the other Tony who continues to maintain most brazenly that he and Bush went into Iraq to defend the great human values that their two countries have so dearly cherished. The undeniable truth is that they went to war for things other than higher human values.

Reading former BBC journalist Umber Khairi’s thought provoking piece “Rights and Wrongs” following a pensive talk given by a Pakistani Rebel with a cause from KP at the Westminster University—MNA Mansoor Dawar, Leader of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement—Umber in her own way, endorsed my lengthy digression.  Indeed, as she says ‘London is a wonderful place for events and seminars organised by academic departments in universities as well as student societies. One gets the opportunity to hear and meet all kinds of interesting personalities; somehow the academic environment encourages one to listen to and consider opposing points of view more readily than one might otherwise.’ Martyred Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto too lived here in exile for many years and she was fond of sharing her thoughts with the youth and academics here.

Pakistan continues to be in the eye of the storm. We are encircled by hostile neighbours—mostly due to our own follies. Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to meet the challenges and pressure on Pakistan from FATF by initiating a crackdown against the extremists. Unfortunately, it seems that there are elements within the government and law enforcers who somehow remain in cahoots with the extremists.

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has pointed out that there are at least three federal ministers who are involved with the extremists.

On the other hand, state machinery is being abused to keep straitjacketed democratic aspirations of the people. The sad plight of tribal people was brought into focus by KP MNA Mohsin Dawar at an event in Westminster College in London the other day. Belonging to Tribal Area Dawar is associated with the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). The genuineness of the cause PTM leaders have taken upon themselves to plead has converted PTM to be a populist movement like of which we have not seen since many years.

Mohsin Dawar reiterated that PTM is a peaceful movement and not what the intelligence agencies apprehend it to be. It is not an irredentist movement, does not want to break up Pakistan, it a movement for the rights of the tribal people within the parameters of Pakistan’s constitution. As such PTM has adopted constitutional and electoral path as a way forward. Let us not push the peaceful Pashtuns and Balochis into the corner, dialogue is the best discourse and not restricting the movement of their leaders by putting them on ECL. One hopes that the committee of provincial assembly members that has come into being to talk across the table with PTM leaders would reach a conclusion for the alleviation of the long-suffering tribal people.

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