On the morning of 28 January, the Area Study Centre, at Peshwar University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, was set to hold the launching of the book I Am Malala but called it off after the police informed its director that it would not oversee security. The author of the book, fifteen-year old Malala Yousafzai rose to fame after the Taliban attacked her in 2012 for promoting education for girls.
“We, as educationalists, can only persuade and fight militancy through ideas but we are not even allowed to do that,” said Dr Sarfaraz Khan, centre’s director. He regretted that the role of academics was being thwarted by “misled” politicians. “The state interfered in the dispensation of my duty,” he added.
Finding the whole episode “most shameful”, rights activist and academic A.H. Nayyar, said: “The city police, the university administration give a false impression that they are not scared of the Taliban but in reality they are and therefore capitulated.”
The storm began brewing the evening of 27 January when Khan received a phone call from the religious-based political party Jammat-e-Islami (JI) spokesperson, which was followed by one from the provincial information minister Shah Farman, who belongs to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — PTI, asking him to cancel the event. The requests soon turned into intimidation.
“Educational institutions have the academic freedom and don’t need government’s permission to hold such events. More importantly, this is what we do — read, write and to celebrate books,” Khan said. “This is what I explained to the politicians and I also told them they were being misled and that they should review their undertaking.”
The pressure mounted as the night wore on with phone calls from university personnel and various government officials. But Khan refused to yield. Then he got a call from the superintendent of police telling him his force would not be able to provide security for the event. “I tried to dissuade him and even asked him if he was threatening me. He kept saying he was compelled to obey orders.”
“A simple book launch has been transformed into a major story because the government in KPK doesn’t share the progressive convictions of the ruling party’s leadership [PTI and Imran Khan],” said Islamabad-based political analyst, Mosharraf Zaidi.
By noon of January 28, after the news spread that the event — jointly staged with the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation and the Strengthening Participatory Organisation — could not take place, Imran Khan tweeted: “I am at a loss 2 understand why Malala’s book launch stopped in Peshawar. PTI believes in freedom of speech/debate, not censorship of ideas.”
Zaidi said: “Imran Khan can try to distance himself from him, but nothing Farman does elicits serious reproach.”
But Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor and a peace activist refuses to buy the “flimsy pretext” of security to stop the book launch or spare the PTI or IK.
Terming them “Taliban’s B-team”, he said: “They have mourned the killing of terrorist leaders; forcibly stopped supplies to those fighting the Taliban; blamed every terrorist atrocity on US drones, and re-introduced violent religious material into the KPK school curricula. On the other hand, they are unmoved by the actions of their allies such as the ghastly murders of health workers, pogroms against Shias and Christians, and attacks on the army and police.”
And thus the event never happened that morning. Just as Khan was getting ready for the function, he felt very ill. The pressure had taken its toll and he was taken to the hospital where the doctors refused to release him until his condition stabilised.
By then the news had spread like wildfire and civil society and rights organisations were up in arms at the way the event had been taken hostage. At around 3pm, Khan got a call from the police saying they had made a mistake and that he could hold the event if they wished. It was too late; the harm had been done; the function had been ruined.
But there is still time to salvage PTI’s sullied reputation, Nayyar said: “It was great to see Imran Khan defy Taliban attacks on polio workers by openly administering polio drops himself, and to know that he was furious at the cancellation of the Malala book launch. We expect him to hold the book launch in Peshawar on his own and invite his friends in JI to the event!”