Details of the Event:
After watching footage from SAMAA TV and speaking to more eyewitnesses, here are some details of the event
The protesters started off as a small group of people who were objecting to the display of the offensive picture. They became increasingly violent, very quickly and after destroying the paintings in the exhibit, they came outside of the hall and started damaging any property they could get their hands on.
The Arts Council had 5 armed guards and the only one who put up any resistance was the oldest one of them, a grey haired gentleman who displayed his gun. The PPP rioters brandished their own weapons but did not fire them and tried to snatch the weapon of the guard who only backed down after his colleagues persuaded him to.
The most striking image for me was Sharmeen Obaid (founder of CAP) standing at the entrance of the hall pleading with rioters to calm down and not destroy the signs and the exhibits. The rioters were visibly threatening, brandishing weapons and using extremely vulgar language, ordering that the entire Arts Council be shut down. This was in the presence of several women, young students and senior citizens.
The camera footage showed them clearly ripping up signs, turning over tables, kicking down tent poles and creating mayhem. Eyewitnesses say that the protestors came up to them and personally threatened their lives saying "we know who you are, we've seen you on TV, we are going to kill you for what you have done"
Here is the disturbing part. The police arrived on the scene almost immediately. Four to five mobiles were standing outside and several armed policemen were inside the premises. They did nothing. The video footage clearly showed them standing back and ignoring the PPP rioters as they destroyed public and private property. Keep in mind that the initial number of rioters was quite small and could easily have been overpowered by the police force.
Not content to destroy the art exhibit, the protesters then broke the windows of the Arts Council offices that were thankfully closed and unoccupied at the time.
Response and Appearance on SAMAA TV:
There were several major news channels that were on the spot with cameras covering the exhibition. Not a single TV channel displayed any footage of the attack save for Samaa TV. While Geo TV ran a ticker briefly saying an art festival had been attacked and erroneously reporting that shots had been fired, they stopped running it after a few minutes and did not follow up on the story. I personally knew a Dawn TV cameraman who was on the spot filming the entire thing who submitted it to the editorial board who chose not to run it. It was a complete failure on the part of the television news. There was no information out until 10pm on SAMAA TV, where TV Personality Faisal Qureshi had Amean J, (photographer/ main organizer and curator for the exhibit) appear on his show to discuss the events. After playing the footage and hearing Amean's version of it, Qureshi contacted Shehla Raza, spokesperson for the Pakistan People's Party.
Ms. Raza then proceeded to berate The Citizens Archive for allowing that picture to go up and launched into long speech about the glory of Benazir Bhutto. Amean apologized on the behalf of CAP and said it was not their intention to offend any person or party. This was not good enough for Raza, who repeatedly laid the blame for the events on the shoulders of CAP.
When repeatedly asked by the host if her party had gone too far in its response, Raza responded "logon ke jazbaat bharak jaatey haain…theek hai inhon ne maafi mangee, laikin inko nahin lagani chahiye thee"
("People can get emotional, he is apologizing now, but they should never have put the picture up in the first place")
Here is the version of the events from Dawn this morning.
What is really disturbing about the comments from the PPP is that they have basically equated political commentary to blasphemy. The punishment for blasphemy in Pakistna is death. Is this to be the punishment for political commentary as well?
Until we stop canonizing leaders and let this feudal, herd mentality prevail in our political party system, we have no hope for political discourse or free speech.
Personally, watching the SAMAA TV interview, I was consumed with uncontrollable rage and grief. I tried desperately to call their hotline and speak on the air but the phone lines were jammed. I was initally not happy that CAP offered to apologize for their actions, I could not believe that the victims had to apologize. But I know that when Amean apologized he truly believed that the greater good of making the show go on, and making sure people go along with us was in everybody's interest.
While there are reports that the show is going to continue, I have not received official word from the organizers yet. They are visibly heartbroken and extremely shaken by the events yesterday. We have already pledged that we will perform as scheduled should they choose to continue and I hope the other artists wil too, because it is the only way we can fight back.
Update : Here is a link to the offending picture on Teeth Maestros Blog.