Malala Yousafzai is back in Pakistan, even though temporarily. Proven that her home country is moving in the right direction, even if this movement is very slow, Malala’s return is a big defeat for extremism. But here is the bitter truth: Almost all important political leaders from the government and opposition welcomed her, but there was not a single open celebration for her. The fans and followers of the world’s youngest and Pakistan’s only woman Nobel Peace Prize winner celebrated her homecoming only on Twitter, not on the streets. She arrived in Pakistan with extraordinary tight security. She met a select few people inside the highly-guarded Prime Minister’s office where she expressed happiness at her return, but with some tears in her eyes. Malala came home on March 29. I reached Hyderabad city in Sindh province the same day to pay tribute to Sufi poet and political activist Comrade Jam Saqi who died a few days ago. All the speakers there said that 2018 is a bad year for progressive forces in Pakistan because in the last few weeks we lost Asma Jahangir and now Comrade Jam Saqi. I agreed with them, but pointed out that it is also a good year because Asma Jahangir and Jam Saqi have come back to us in the shape of Malala Yousafzai.
When I welcomed Malala’s return, the huge crowd in the Sindh Museum of Hyderabad clapped loudly and long. Next morning, back in Islamabad, I received a phone call from a television anchor. He wanted to invite me to a discussion on “I Am Not Malala Day”, to be observed on March 30 by All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF). When I asked some questions about its credentials, the anchor said that this is the largest organisation representing 173,000 private schools (mostly English Medium), that they were organising a Black Day on the return of Malala and demanding the ban of the book “I Am Malala”, because this book was against Islam.
I started laughing and told them, Don’t stand on the wrong side of history. Sure, there were some typographical errors in the book, but Malala corrected those errors. The TV anchor told me, respectfully, that he was only obeying the orders of his management and I should come on his show to defend Malala. I thanked him for inviting me and said I would definitely participate in it.
The same afternoon I sat in front of Malala Yousafzai and congratulated her on coming back to Pakistan. Only a few months ago, when I met her in Birmingham, she had asked me to help her return. I assured her that she would come back soon. I requested prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to speak to her. They met in Davos on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in January. Malala requested PM Abbasi to help her return. The prime minister spoke to the army leadership. There were apprehensions in some religious circles, but the Army was clear that Malala is the daughter of the nation and a symbol of resistance against extremism. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa discussed the issue with his colleagues and then assured the PM that the Army would support any decision taken by the government on Malala. I must appreciate the PM’s initiative. I know he is not a very powerful PM and recently met Chief Justice of Pakistan as if he was a “faryadi”, a complainant, but he fulfilled his promise to Malala.
Malala thanked both the civilian and Army leadership for facilitating her return to Pakistan. She told me that she utilised the Easter holidays to make the visit home. She is returning to Oxford University on Monday where she is studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. She said she was committed to settling back in Pakistan permanently. She remembered her first interview with me on the night of February 18, 2009 in Swat. The area was in the control of the Taliban those days and they were bombing girls schools. All of them were shut down. Malala was only 11 years old; she appeared on my show on Geo TV, from the rooftop of the small Taj Mahal hotel in Mingora town. She demanded that her school be opened so that girls like her could continue their studies.
There were armed Taliban standing around her, but she spoke bravely. Within minutes her voice reached millions of Pakistanis. After a few weeks a big military operation was launched against the Taliban in that area. Malala and I remained in touch; we predicted the defeat of Taliban. I wrote a column in “The News International” on May 8, 2009, quoting Malala, that the “Taliban would be defeated this time”. She was proved right. The Taliban leadership ran away within a few months and Malala was back in school.
The Taliban would return a few years later. On October 9, 2012, as she was returning home from school in Mingora with some girlfriends, the Taliban opened fire on her school-bus. They singled Malala out and shot her in the head. Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan later accepted the responsibility of attacking a 14-year-old girl. After some initial medical treatment she was transported to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
I vehemently criticised the Taliban on my TV show and in my writings. Within a few weeks, a bomb was planted under my car but it was timely defused by Islamabad’s bomb disposal squad. Ehsanullah Ehsan once again accepted the responsibility on BBC. My family was terrified and then Home minister Rehman Malik warned me to keep a low profile. That same evening an injured Malala called me from the bed of Queen Elizabeth Hospital and expressed solidarity with me. She once again said “The enemies of peace will be defeated one day”.
I cannot forget the concern she showed for me after I escaped an assassination attempt in Karachi in 2014. I received six bullets, but the doctors failed to remove two bullets from my body. I was on a wheelchair for many weeks. Malala contacted me and arranged my appointment with the doctors of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham who had treated her. She became a source of strength for me when I was unable to walk and when some people told me I may not be able to walk again. All those people have been proved wrong. These are the same people who continue to claim that the Taliban attack on Malala was a drama and she is a Western agent. These people predicted many times that Malala would not come back to Pakistan. They are being proved wrong again.
Just few months before her return, Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan surrendered to security forces. More than 2200 Taliban fighters have surrendered in last one year, but they are not finished yet. They are still in a position to organise terrorist attacks in the remote areas of Swat. Recently they tried to attack a Pakistan Super League (PSL) semi final match in Lahore, but failed. The terrorists and their facilitators were arrested in Lahore. Malala was very happy about the PSL matches in Pakistan and said “they indicated that the security situation in Pakistan is improving and I hope some more foreign players will come to play in Pakistan in next PSL”.
I noticed a big change in Malala during her recent visit to Pakistan. In 2009 she had told me in our TV interview that she wanted to become a politician. This time she wasn’t interested any more in politics. Once upon a time, the late Benazir Bhutto was her role model. She still respects Benazir Bhutto but now Asma Jahangir is her ideal. She met Asma Jahangir only five days before her death, in London. Malala told me that “If you translate bravery into a human body, that was Asma Jahangir.”
She added, “I have met many Prime Ministers all over the world and I realised all Prime Ministers cannot make changes in society”. She said she was very disappointed by popular politician and Nobel Laureate winner Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar who failed to stop the massacre of Rohinggya Muslims in her country. Malala said she wanted to do something for peace not through politics but through education. She said India and Pakistan should start talking again. Repeatedly, she added, “Education is the solution of our problems in this region”.
Malala wanted to move freely in her homeland but her movement was restricted. I could see a shadow of pain in her eyes. She was trying to hide this pain with a smile on her face. I assured her that a day would come soon when she would move freely in the markets of Pakistan with her parents. As I said goodbye to her and returned to my office, the same TV anchor who had wanted a discussion on ‘I Am Not Malala Day’ called me, saying the programme had been cancelled. I was relieved, but asked “Why”? He said that APPSF had failed to bring students on the roads against Malala. Only a few kids had been forced by their teachers to sing “I am not Malala”, while the videos on social media were widely condemned by the general public.
Malala visited her home in Swat on Saturday. The visit was arranged by the Pakistan Army. Her return to Swat was a victory for her as well for the whole of Pakistan. Of course, this is a small victory in a big battle. We are still fighting a big war against extremism. We cannot win this war only through politics. But we can win it by promoting education like Malala Yousafzai said, and by raising slogans without any fear or favour. I am also Malala. Let us start from here.