The call was made at the second annual “Pakistan: The Way Forward” conference organised under the banner of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH), co-hosted by US-based columnist Dr Mohammad Taqi and former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, Husain Haqqani.
Several prominent liberal and progressive intellectuals, human rights and social media activists and public figures spoke during the conference on their vision of a liberal and democratic Pakistan.
The speakers debated at length the policies of the Pakistani government in many areas, including domestic and international, and expressed concerns at the current affairs, calling on the authorities to change the course.
The speakers said that the space for free thinking and honest debate has shrunk and advocates of liberal, secular, progressive ideas and pluralism have come under attack from extremist groups.
Many speakers pointed out that the human rights situation has gone worse in the whole South Asian region, including in India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, where forces of right-wing have taken control of decision making at the cost of vulnerable sections of the society.
They said that while Pakistan has seen tremendous improvement in many areas over the last several years, it was not right that many groups and communities remained under threat and human rights are denied to them.
The speakers expressed concern at attempts to mainstream extremist and banned organisations and made reference to the electoral gains two candidates made in the NA0-120 by-election in Lahore.
Rashed Rehman, senior editor and human rights advocate, told Geo News that these groups posed a direct and clear threat to the democratic system of Pakistan.
“It’s a dangerous development that these groups are being brought into politics. These groups don’t believe in democracy at all.”
It was discussed that to establish a true democracy in Pakistan, the federating units must be given maximum powers and the National Finance Commission Award should give more resources to provinces for local development as well as devolution of power.
The conference agreed that Pakistan needs a new national narrative, based on progressive ideas and detaches from religious extremism and militancy.
Many participants complained that media has been used to issue fatwas on the dissenting voices.
Haqqani told Geo News that those critical of current government policies are as patriotic as anyone else and they only wanted a pluralistic and progressive Pakistan.
He said that while the views of the liberal thinkers and intellectuals for open for criticism but it was not right that the dissenting voices were termed anti-Pakistan and agents of foreign forces.
Growing intolerance posed threat to Pakistan and played out against Pakistan’s interests at the global level, he remarked further.
A joint declaration by the moot called on the Pakistani government to listen to fresh ideas espoused by broad-minded Pakistanis and end relying on ideas peddled by the right-wing elements.
The declaration said that a “steady diet of conspiracy theories” had harmed Pakistan and it was time to revisit such policies which encouraged reactionary forces.
It said that only a pluralist Pakistan at peace with itself would have a positive global and local image and for this purpose the decision makers should engage with those who believe in a liberal, secular and progressive vision of Pakistan.