In Pakistan, no one is safe


By Manzoor Ahmad

In Pakistan, the term  “disappeared “ has  a very ominous meaning—it often simply and brutally means, “dead and gone“.  The victims always were those who were ethnic minorities like the Baloch, religious minorities like the Shias or non-Muslims like the Christians. But there were other victims too—those who dared to challenge the state, be it the civilian government or the all-powerful military.

The new year has especially been alarming for this group of liberal protesters who have been using the media as well as the social media to raise their voice against injustice and repression of ordinary Pakistanis. On the last count, four of  them, all within the first week of January 2017, have “disappeared“.

Influential English daily, DAWN, in its editorial, pointed a clear finger at the involvement of the state—“a dark new chapter in the state’s murky, illegal war against civil society appears to have been opened”.  Although the Sharif government has said that it was not in the “business of disappeared persons“, the state of Pakistan has for long been guilty of repressing rebellion and dissent through very violent means.

The four who disappeared first between January 4 and 7, 2017 were Salman Haider, a poet and academic, and bloggers WaqasGoraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer. Salman is a lecturer at the Fatima Jinnah Women University and a well-known human rights activist. The fifth to disappear was Samar Abbas, president of the Civil Progressive Alliance of Pakistan (CPAP), an anti-extremism activist group.

Although they were all from diverse professional backgrounds, what united them was their brave and consistent campaign for religious freedom and human rights in Pakistan where the state has enshrined discriminatory and repressive policies in the statute itself. They campaigned feverishly, using new social media tools to propagate their leftist, liberal views where right-wing extremism has been an accepted normal in Pakistani polity.

What made them even more a stronger target of the extremist groups and their state patrons was their relentless campaign against blasphemy laws, one of the most regressive laws in the world.   Often the minorities and the liberals were liable to be imprisoned on trumped up charges and then sentenced to death. The blasphemy laws, as they exist in Pakistan, are a blot on any civil society. Even powerful politicians have paid with their life for opposing it.  An illustrative case was that of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who defend of a hapless Christian woman charged with blasphemy and sentence to death.  Taseer’s valiant defence of the Christian woman ultimately resulted in his death at the hands of his own personal security guard. The killer commando, Qadri, was lionised by the sectarian extremist organisation and after his execution ordered by the military court, a memorial was built in his home town which attracts large gatherings.

Over the years, extremist and terrorist groups have been targeting their outspoken critics, writers and journalists with impunity over the years. Several have been abducted, tortured and their bodies dumped on roadsides. Journalists have been killed in targeted killings or warned. The number of journalists threatened, abducted and killed have been so large that Pakistan is a perennial topper in the list of countries declared as one of the most dangerous countries.

But terrorist groups are not the only one targeting the sensible, sensitive Pakistani citizens.  The state itself has been at the forefront of this systematic repressive campaign. The most powerful organ of the state, Pakistan Army, which is a state itself, tops the list of tormentors. Since 1947, ethnic and religious minorities have been the target of the Army and its intelligence wing, ISI.  There is no official count of the Shias killed by the state or in complicity with the state since this religious minority, numbering several million, dared to challenge the military dictator, Ziaul Haq, who wanted to transform Pakistan into an extremist state where minorities and liberals had no place. Even before that, the Ahmadis, another religious minority, were targeted systematically by the state as well as its proxies.

The insidious plan of making people “disappear“ however began with the Baloch, a nation of people who were compelled to join Pakistan in 1947 but never really felt part of the Muslim country despite being Muslims, and was never treated as Pakistanis. When the Baloch began raising their voice against discrimination and injustice at the hands of predominantly Punjabi-dominated army and civilian leadership, the security forces began targeting them. Those who were leading the dissent, they were picked up and tortured and detained in `black prisons` for months and years. The Baloch who never returned home, alive or dead, came to be called the “disappeared“ in Pakistan, a misleading nomenclature for victims of state repression.

Several thousand Baloch have since disappeared, scores found dead months later in garbage dumps and mass graves. The state turned a deaf ear to the plea of the kith and kin of Baloch, citizens of Pakistan who had no claim to any rights of citizens. The police were obviously complicity with the state and the judiciary was rarely of any help. Only when a courageous Chief Justice of Pakistan decided to take up the hearing of the “disappeared“ persons, people in Pakistan and elsewhere began to take note. But then, quickly enough, when the judge began coming close to indicting the army and its intelligence agencies, he was sacked by the military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf.  Since then, several hundred Baloch have joined the ranks of the “disappeared“ with neither the civilian government nor the judiciary interested in finding out where did these men and women go.

The rare breed of journalists who dared to probe these disappearances and other repressive actions by the military became the next target, with several, less famous ones, killed with impunity in target killings by anonymous bike riders who never seem to be either identified or caught. They are the hit men of the state. Even the famous one like Hamid Mir and Raza Rumi were not spared. A well connected journalist, Mir was waylaid and shot but he survived to tell the tale. Rumi was similarly attacked by anonymous assailants, his driver was killed and Rumi decided to flee his country.

The disappearance of the five civil rights campaigners adds to the list of Pakistanis who have faced the wrath of their own state for raising their voice for a better country for its people.