Opponents who can’t be silenced, go missing

Dying to write More than 60 Pakistani scribes were killed between 2007 and 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists

The period January 4-7 in the context of Pakistan came as a reminder of the dreaded tactic of abductions employed to silence Islamabad’s opponents in Balochistan. During these four days Pakistan’s intelligence network is believed to have let loose a reign of terror on those holding liberal views and being vocal in expressing their thoughts.Nine such human rights activists, mainly left-leaning thinkers active on the social media, including a magazine editor, who refused to bother about the threats they faced from the government’s intelligence agencies, were punished for their inconvenient views with intelligence sleuths resorting to abductions. These missing people remain untraced despite all kinds of efforts made to bring them back to their families.

The editor, Salman Haidar, associated with online fortnightly magazine Tanqeed, focusing on political and cultural issues, was abducted on January 6 after two other persons, reported to be active bloggers, disappeared on January 4. There is no conclusive proof of the forces behind the silencing of these voices, but the accusing finger is raised towards the government’s intelligence network. Interestingly, the government has not denied the charge, which sticks on it easily.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) along with its affiliate, the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), has demanded that the matter must be investigated to bring out the truth soon. An appeal issued by the IFJ fell on deaf ears, as expected: “The IFJ is seriously concerned about the disappearances of activists, including magazine editor and blogger Salman Haider. The disappearances show an alarming trend of targeting the champions of freedom of expression and intolerance towards critical voices. Such incidents weaken democracy and have a chilling effect on those who express themselves independently, including journalists and bloggers. The IFJ urges the Pakistan government to urgently take action to ensure the safe recovery of Haider and other activists.”

Salman, called Sallu by his friends and admirers, who also taught journalism at Fatima Jinnah University, had gone out to somewhere in Islamabad in his car with his friends on January 6 evening. His wife started feeling uneasy when he did not return by 8 pm, and his mobile phone went silent. Smelling foul play, she immediately informed her relatives and brought the matter to the notice of the police, but all in vain. After a while she got a message on her cell phone to take back his car from a place on the outskirts of Islamabad.

His disappearance was stunning in the sense as some time back, writing a lament on some of his friends’ abductions in Balochistan, he had expressed the fear that one day he might meet the fate of his friends if there is no change in the attitude of the authorities, who are not prepared to tolerate dissent in the case of the realities prevailing in Balochistan, the biggest but the poorest province of Pakistan.

Here are a few lines showing how he expressed his apprehensions in the form of poetry, carried in the July issue of bilingual online magazine Tanqeed:

Right now the friends of my friends are being ‘disappeared’
Soon it will be my friends’ turn
And then mine …
When I become the file
That my father will bring to court hearings
Or the picture that my son will kiss when asked by a journalist.

The Tanqeed staff felt aghast at the development and appealed to the authorities for finding out his whereabouts but without success: “The Tanqeed editorial team is shocked to learn about the disappearance of one of our own: Salman Haider, a famed Urdu poet, a large-hearted editor, a thoughtful scholar, and a committed activist… Haider has been a fixture on Tanqeed’s team, spending countless hours translating, revising and editing Urdu articles in addition to penning his own Urdu blog. In a prescient poem written nearly six months ago and published on his blog, he spoke of his friends’ disappearances and predicted that it may, one day, be his turn.” How true he was.

Protests have been organised in support of some other “missing” cases too in different parts of Pakistan since these developments got highlighted in the media, but the authorities remain unmoved. Besides Salman, the other widely discussed human rights activists include Ahmed Raza Naseer, Samar Abbas, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Waqas Goraya. They have been either abducted or have gone missing because of being fierce critics of the Pakistan government’s policies. Saeed and Goraya managed a popular anti-military facebook page Mochi.

Over 8,000 have gone missing in 12 years for opposing the policies of the government, highlighting the sorry state of affairs in Balochistan and NWFP

In March 2014, journalist and author Raza Rumi was assaulted by an extremist outfit for criticising the use of militants by the government as an instrument of the state’s policy on India and other neighbours. Rumi survived the attack on him, but could not muster courage to live in Pakistan and moved over to the United States.

After Rumi came the turn of 40-year-old female human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, who was killed in April 2014. Sabeen was engaged in a debate on Balochistan’s missing persons at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) when she was done to death for her anti-establishment views.

The Pakistan establishment’s dictatorial style of handling its independent critics, not associated with political parties or powerful religious organizations, is not new. This has been the Pakistani authorities’ method of tackling inconvenient voices while wearing the cloak of democracy. According to reports, over 8,000 persons are recorded to have gone missing during the past 12 years for opposing the policies of the government and highlighting the sorry state of affairs in Balochistan and the tribal areas in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa (earlier called NWFP).

These critics enjoy support in different sections of society all over Pakistan. Yet enough protest against the treatment meted out to these liberal thinkers and activists is not seen. Why? The general complaint against these activists is that they express their concern over the highhandedness of the government or its agencies only when any of the left-leaning thinkers are harassed or are under attack. Vast sections of people who oppose Islamabad’s ruthless policies are not their concern so long as the interests of the left-leaning class remain untouched.

This clearly shows a big gulf between the rightist and leftist camps in Pakistan even when the issues involved are of concerned to both. Since the number of rights is much higher than that of the leftists, the latter are bound to suffer more. Their plight is pitiable. One well-known example that is given in this regard is the case of the late Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, gunned down by his own security guard. The guard was given the death sentence, and when he was executed a large number of people participated in the prayers held on the occasion of his last rites. Such prayers (namaz-e-janaza) were held in many cities in Pakistan. The number of participants in the namaz-e-janaza of Taseer was too small to be compared with that of his guard.

This is not a happy scenario; it calls for serious thought to be given by champions of freedom of expression and human rights. Everybody must be allowed to express one’s views freely, irrespective of being inconvenient, without fear of any kind of intimidation, if Pakistan wishes to be counted as a modern and liberal democracy.

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