How many agents can one country house? The more the better

by Asim Hafeez

It won’t be wrong to say that nowadays Pakistan is a safe haven for most foreign agents, even the ‘RAW’ ones.

The anatomy of a ‘RAW’ or foreign agent isn’t as complex as some would think. You are critical about the way Pakistan is run. You don’t buy the Pakistan version of history. You think deep down that raising your voice against the establishment will bring change, which you also know won’t happen in your lifetime. You demand constitutional supremacy over a powerful institution. You ask for equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. You are vocal about the state’s proxy wars that threaten peaceful relations with neighbouring countries. You talk about women rights.

If you have checked all of the above, then you have arrived. Please consider yourself worthy of being labelled an agent.

A few years back on a visit to Karachi, I had one of the weirdest conversations with a local journalist about philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi. The journalist didn’t seem too fond of Edhi’s work and went on to tell me how Edhi wouldn’t say his prayers and believed that humanity was his religion. This ultimately made him a ‘RAW agent’ for he wouldn’t use religion or nationalism for his services.

Similarly, human rights activist Asma Jahangir was vilified all her life as a foreign agent. Her only crime? Being a relentless fighter for rights and a valiant critic of the state. Disagreement with her was only channelled through maligning campaigns.

If her photograph with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray from 2008 in India, wearing a saffron shalwar kameez, wasn’t enough to trigger seizures in ‘patriots’, there was another photo during the same trip, with then chief minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi. And, in our times, a photo is evidence for any kind of treachery.

This tradition of calling those who dissent an agent, traitor, infidel or even a blasphemer has continued for decades. Politicians, lawyers, authors, poets, journalists, human rights activists and academics who don’t agree with the set narrative of the state have been labelled agents in Pakistan.

Even Jinnah’s family was not spared. Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah was once called an agent of Kabul by military dictator Ayub Khan. The esteemed list of traitors and foreign agents includes: Bacha Khan, Wali Khan, Ataullah Mengal, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Mujibur Rehman, Nawab Akbar Bughti, Altaf Hussain and Nawaz Sharif.

What remains consistent in the past and the present is the award-giving body, those thirty-odd patriots.

When in 2016 the Nawaz Sharif-government warned the military to act against militants or face international isolation it became a huge scandal called “Dawn Leaks”. But when the current prime minister Imran Khan, in an interview with The New York Times, said that the Pakistan Army created militants, no one called Khan a traitor.

One hilarious charge against Sharif was that apparently there are 300 Indians working in his sugar mill and the majority of them are RAW agents. This allegation from opponent Tahirul Qadri was denied by the Sharif family, but then who cares about corrigendum. Even now the story is presented by ministers in news shows as proof against Nawaz.

When in an interview with Dawn, Nawaz said, “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” a treason case was initiated against him.

Following India’s Balakot strikes, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari questioned the government’s action against terrorist organisations, he had said that the militants hadn’t been arrested, rather they had been taken into protective custody so that Indian jets don’t bomb them.

All hell broke loose and the hyper-patriotic news anchors were convinced that young Bhutto had a foreign agenda. So much so, that those who only tweeted out a chunk of his statement were also referred to as: “yeh bhi unhi ke hain”. The polite way of saying that they were also Indian agents.

Baloch leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal on the floor of the house last week said: “Eighty per cent of Pakistanis are traitors. If all politicians are traitors, then the people who voted for them are also traitors.”

The latest enemy of the state is the indigenous struggle for equal rights, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which has been labelled as an Afghan NDS and Indian RAW project. The founder of the movement, Manzoor Pashteen, asked: “How is demanding a peaceful life part of a foreign agenda?”

Accusing a marginalised ethnic group of foreign affiliation and threatening them with dire consequences with no proof to back the allegations has been the norm. The accused has to prove that they are innocent, the accuser doesn’t owe anyone any explanation.

Those who differ aren’t people with opposing viewpoints but foreign agents. The notion has been rampant in Pakistan and is not withering anytime soon. So, let’s just tell ourselves foreign agents and accept that the majority of the Pakistanis are on the payroll of CIA, RAW, NDS and live to fight another day.

The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan