On 21 August, we received an announcement on a WhatsApp group, stating that former Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf would address students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in three day’s time on August 24.
As a student at SOAS, it was shocking to learn that a man who has been declared an absconder by courts in Pakistan for his refusal to stand trial on charges of suspending the Constitution and imposing emergency rule in the country, as well as being one of the accused in the Benazir murder case, would step foot at a university known for its progressive ideals and student activism.
From the poster, it would appear that the Pakistani channel Dunya News was the organiser of the event, and that the talk was to be recorded for Kamran Shahid’s show On the Front. Students were supposed to ask questions directly to Musharraf during the proceedings.
SOAS Pakistan Society shared the event’s poster on their Facebook page, asking people to contact them if they wanted to register their names on the list of attendees.
The Society made it clear in its public communication that it did not officially endorse the talk. Though, the clarification came later and was not part of their original Facebook post.
A number of us belonging to the Pakistan Solidarity Campaign and the Awami Workers Party UK, along with Baloch and Sindhi activists, and other progressive students and academics at SOAS, immediately approached the university administration and the SOAS Student Union to obtain further details about the event.
In response to our emails, we were informed by SOAS that no room booking was made under Musharraf’s or the TV channel’s name for August 24. It turned out that the space was booked by a Pakistani doctorate student, who did not share the details of the event with the administration.
Right away, we started a campaign ‘Dictator & Absconder Pervez Musharraf is not welcome at SOAS’ and initiated an online petitiondemanding SOAS to cancel the event. Hundreds of people signed the petition.
Hundreds of emails were also sent to SOAS, prompting the university to eventually issue a notice on 22 August on its website, clarifying that “at no point was any such event discussed with SOAS or with the Students’ Union.”
It’s highly unlikely that the university would have cancelled the event or withdrawn support. After all, SOAS has seen much bigger protests in the past and has not budged. In any case, Musharraf’s talk was not organised by SOAS and was an external event at the university premises.
What did happen, however, was that our pressure successfully dissuaded the actual organisers from going ahead with the event at SOAS.
After its cancellation, there was a rumour that the organisers had planned to hold the event at the University of Westminster instead. But within a few hours, Westminster replied to one of our emails and confirmed that the university had not received any request for the event to take place on its campus .
After back-to-back annulments, we then learned that the organisers had approached a local Pakistani restaurant to host the show. Consequently, the restaurant received hundreds of phone calls to cancel the programme, which it eventually did.
The organisers later claimed that they had to postpone the event, owing to the high number of registrations which made the venue at SOAS insufficient in capacity.
However, I think that this was a face-saving exercise. I firmly believe that it was our critical response to the event and the threat of protest that made the organisers retreat.
I would also like to respond to a concern that was brought up and highlight some other observations during the course of the events. Some people argued that Musharraf should be allowed to speak and his right to freedom of speech should be respected.
But how much of this principle is respected by Musharraf himself? Censorship and cracking down on dissent are legacies of military rules in the country, especially that of Zia-ul-Haq, whose destructive reign Musharraf shamelessly praised.
Furthermore, if the former dictator is so keen on expressing himself, why does he not make his case in court?
I am also thoroughly unimpressed with the political upbringing of so many Pakistani students (mostly elites) in different universities in London. One member of the SOAS Pakistan Society told me that the Society “has got nothing to do with politics.” Such attitudes are common among Pakistani students and for some reason they seem almost proud for being ‘apolitical.’
Yet, for all their supposed indifference to politics, many of them are supporters of the military’s role in Pakistan, keeping in line with the general trend in the country where the public perception of the military is positive.
The SOAS Pakistan Society did, after all, publish the event’s information on their social media. The question is: why did a group that apparently “has got nothing to do with politics” share a political event, that too of a former dictator?
The answer is simple: our generation was born during one dictatorial rule – Zia’s – and came of age during another – Musharraf’s. Civilian leaders were overthrown one by one on charges of corruption, whereas nobody ever asked as to why only civilians are held accountable. This helped create a climate whereby the military was seen as the saviour of the country, which many ‘apolitical’ people uncritically embrace.
I think it’s high time we did away with our passiveness and started engaging with the affairs of society more critically and firmly.