In-Depth On The Cover

Person of the Year 2015

Updated Sep 20, 2016 04:58pm

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Illustration by Zaka Bhatty
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty

As 2014 drew to a close, Pakistan witnessed multiple displays of rising intolerance: in that year’s month of November alone, a Christian couple (and their unborn child) were brutally lynched in Kot Radha Kishan, near Lahore, and an alleged blasphemer was axed to death by a policeman in Gujrat. To find out the factors behind such events, the Herald decided to hold a panel discussion asking if the state had any role in the rising religious violence. We wanted to hold the discussion – likely to ruffle some well-kempt and exalted feathers – at a venue which did not put any restrictions or conditions on what could be discussed and how. Talking about the state’s (in)efficiency in all matters religious, its complicity in incidents of intolerance and the ever-controversial blasphemy laws are, after all, taboo — especially in the public sphere. Unsurprisingly, we received many rejections, even from the places which, otherwise, want to be seen as championing freedom of expression.

Enter Sabeen Mahmud. “Just bring along some security guards from your office on the day of the event,” Mahmud said half in jest, before wholeheartedly agreeing to hold the discussion at T2F — a small venue in Karachi that she set up in 2007. It is essentially a space that can be available, sometimes even without a fee, to anyone with an idea which is too controversial to be taken up at any other public or private location.

Mahmud’s T2F – run on social entrepreneur Jacqueline Novogratz’s philosophy that “public space for real discourse is the key to civil society” – was her response to the shrinking of community space in Pakistan. It continues to be an embodiment of everything she stood for: empathy and love for humanity, with eccentricity and the freedom to offend thrown in for good measure. As a self-identified ‘flower child’, she believed in proactive civic action as opposed to violent retaliation, pyaar (affectionate engagement) as opposed to taqraar (hostile argument).

The panel’s vote was also not as split as it has been previously – eight of them voted for Sabeen Mahmud; one each voted for Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif and the slain Punjab home minister Shuja Khanzada.

It was her activism, combined with a desire to reclaim public spaces, that led Mahmud to participate in the candlelight vigils outside Lal Masjid in Islamabad, demanding that the chief cleric at the mosque, Abdul Aziz, be prosecuted for his refusal to condemn the Army Public School attack. “Never would have thought entering Islamabad would be so exciting. Giriftaar Karo! #AbdulAziz ko [Arrest Abdul Aziz],” she tweeted. On December 26, 2014, the protests finally led to the issuing of an arrest warrant for Aziz.

In 2015, challenges to free speech continued to persist — as did Mahmud’s willingness to take them on. In April, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) had to cancel a panel discussion titled Unsilencing Balochistan. As implicit in the title, the talk was to discuss the state oppression in Balochistan. It had to be called off because – as explained by a post on the university’s website – “…a day before the talk was to take place, the LUMS administration was forced by pressure from intelligence agencies and the office of the Chief Minister and Home Ministry to cancel the talk.” Mama Qadeer – chairman of the Voice of Missing Baloch Persons and a panellist at the talk – looked elsewhere. Only days later, he was speaking at another panel discussion titled Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2), this time at T2F. Mahmud was driving back home from this event when she was shot dead by two gunmen riding a motorcycle.

Since that April 24 evening, freedom of expression has been under pressure multiple times. In September, the Central Board of Film Censors deemed a Pakistani film Abdullah – based on the controversial 2011 killings of five foreigners in Kharotabad, Balochistan – unfit for screening. On August 31, a Lahore High Court ruling silenced Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader Altaf Hussain through a ban on broadcasting his speeches and images. At various points during the year, crews representing different televisions channels have come under attack for reporting something that someone somewhere did not like.

In December, the photograph of a poster, reading “Qadiani dogs are not allowed to enter this shop” and displayed outside a cell phone shop in Lahore’s Hafeez Centre shopping mall, went viral on social media. Responding to complaints about the poster, the local police removed it and arrested two people who ran that shop. Shortly afterwards, scores of people showed up outside Hafeez Centre, protesting the removal of the poster. The arrested shopkeepers were let go the next day and were welcomed as heroes by a big crowd outside the police station.

In a long list of incidents concerning the state’s failure to distinguish free speech from hate speech, this was just the most recent reminder that the same state that can force a university to cancel a political talk, is unable to do anything helpful against the promotion of religious hatred. And this will certainly not be the last such reminder.


The Herald’s list of ten contenders for the Person of the Year is not made through a scientific formula. We are not holding an election or running a popularity contest. How does, then, someone make it to the list and why?

Being on the list is less about the quality of the impact made by an individual in a calendar year and more about the frequency or the intensity of that impact. One obvious way to measure that frequency or intensity is to see how much news a person has created, how much public stir – or storm – they have generated, how many times they have figured in public and media discourses and, most importantly, whether they represent anything that is novel, provocative, different, even eccentric, regardless of whether it has been good or bad.

The build-up to the Person of the Year begins many weeks in advance of the final publication of the Herald’s annual issue. Around October every year, we are sifting through our notes, discussing the credentials of around a hundred potential nominees before short listing the top ten. Sometimes we strongly disagree among ourselves on why someone should be on the list and how someone else does not make the cut. The end result is that each of the ten nominees is there for very solid reasons and those who are not have been omitted after due diligence.

After nominations come the polls.

Like previous years, the polling process has been split in three tiers: votes by a panel of ten prominent Pakistanis, an online public vote and postal ballots mostly sent by the readers of daily Dawn, the Herald and dawn.com.

Once the polls started for this edition of the Person of the Year, both the strengths and weaknesses of our list of nominees became apparent. While the panel of prominent Pakistanis overwhelmingly voted in the favour of one nominee, the public voted with a vast majority in the favour of another. Some participants in the voting process were disappointed that we had not nominated Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan. Others commented that we were trying to compare “an apple with [a] toffee and coffee and gulli danda.” Some readers called the list unbalanced; others thought we were trying to cover more fields of public life than we should. The fact that there are at least three people on the list who are no longer alive also came in for some criticism. Why we did not nominate them while they were still living, we were asked. Others were not sure if Reham Khan deserved a spot on a list which does not include her more illustrious former husband.

These have been regular complaints since the Herald started its maiden Person of the Year process back in 2012. But, unlike in previous years, very few rejected the entire nominee list this time round. As the postal ballots came in, we received just one with “none” written on it in bold letters from Islamabad. The panel of prominent Pakistanis was also a little less difficult to put together this year. No one we approached rejected the invitation to be on the panel. In the past, many had done that because they did not agree with our list of contenders.

The panel’s vote was also not as split as it has been previously – eight of them voted for Sabeen Mahmud; one each voted for Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif and the slain Punjab home minister Shuja Khanzada. These three have also turned out to be our top contenders — in the same order.

While Mahmud received a massive endorsement from the panel, she secured only the third highest number of online votes at 13 per cent. The winner in online poll was Raheel Sharif who secured 37 per cent votes. The general’s supporters took to Twitter to campaign for him, spreading #ThankYouRaheelSharif to as many twitterati as possible.

The surprise second was Altaf Hussain who got 22 per cent of the online votes. His tally was surprising for another reason. He was on our nomination list for a previous edition of the Person of the Year too but very few had bothered to vote for him then. The ban on the media coverage of his activities may have been a factor behind the change: for the first time, a large portion of our online voters seem to have seen him as someone deserving of their sympathy. An effective social media campaign by his party to get the word out about his nomination also helped his cause.

Where the voting process did not depart from the norm was its geographical distribution. We received online votes from many parts of the globe: Pakistan, the United States, the United Kingdom, India and even Kenya. A vast majority of the online votes – as well as all postal ballots – originated from within Pakistan, particularly from urban centres such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar.

Postal ballots showed that support for Raheel Sharif and Mahmud was present in every part of Pakistan though, with 41 per cent votes, the former was way ahead of the latter who secured 23 per cent. A vast majority of the votes for Raheel Sharif came in from Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Bhakkar, Multan and Layyah. Only in places such as Quetta and Gwadar fewer people cast their postal ballots for him than they did for Mahmud. This could be reflective of the public opinion in Balochistan where the military is seen as being responsible for the missing person phenomenon and Mahmud as a voice against it.

This ability to reflect public opinion does not mean that our polling process is an authentic way to gauge how people think — even in Balochistan. The process is neither representative of Pakistan’s demographics nor can it reflect the diversity of views in the society. If anything, it is curation and collation of the opinions of our readers. To broaden its scope, we have juxtaposed public opinions with those of ten knowledgeable and well known Pakistanis, each of them being a leader in their respective field. The Herald’s process of choosing the Person of the Year is certainly not flawless but it is also not single-dimensional and capricious.

That explains why this year’s choice is a strong reflection of the troubled times we live in: a single common factor – terrorism – has determined the three top contenders. While Mahmud and Khanzada have been its victims, Raheel Sharif is seen by many Pakistanis as doing his best to weed it out.

Then there is this other common thread: free speech. Like the terrorists, the security agencies fighting them also curtail freedom of speech whenever they deem it too dangerous for what they call national interest. We have seen this in multiple reminders – delivered both directly and indirectly – to the mass media over its coverage of such diverse subjects as security operations in Karachi and Balochistan, Saudi Arabia’s internal and external situation and the military establishment’s interference in the political domain.

It is precisely this salience of free speech that makes Mahmud the most pertinent choice as the Herald’s Person of the Year 2015.


This was the introduction essay of Person of the Year originally published in Herald's Annual 2016 issue. To read profiles on Sabeen Mahmud, Raheel Sharif and Shuja Khanzada, subscribe to Herald in print.