‘An honest Pakistan is a better Pakistan’: the ‘unsilencing’ idea and the ongoing intellecticide

Citizens in Lahore at a #Rally4Sabeen. Photo: Farooq Tariq

Citizens in Lahore at a #Rally4Sabeen. Photo: Farooq Tariq

I wrote this piece last week for EPW – Economic and Political Weekly, India; reproduced below with photos and additional links.

“Unsilencing Pakistan” was an idea first articulated in 2011. It has been revived following the recent murder of Sabeen Mahmud, who had attempted to create a space where Pakistanis could discuss contentious issues–like the human rights violations in Balochistan–without fear. Can Pakistan’s intellectuals and human rights activists survive the “intellecticide” being perpetrated?

By Beena Sarwar

When the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) announced that it was organising a seminar titled “Un-Silencing Balochistan” on 9 April 2015, it reminded me of the “Unsilencing Pakistan” initiative of the summer of 2011.

Censored- unsilencing balochistanSome of us had drafted a statement endorsed by several progressive voices—well-known journalists, lawyers, singers, musicians, doctors, entrepreneurs and others—condemning “the continuing harassment, torture, and killing of progressive thinkers, journalists, and activists in Pakistan.”

The statement noted that, “most major Pakistani newspapers have written editorials and published opinion pieces that attest to the new depths that the nexus of the ‘agencies’ and militants have reached in the country, and to their continued immunity from serious investigation or accountability.”

The situation in Balochistan is “particularly disturbing in this regard,” it continued. “Hundreds of students, lawyers, journalists, and activists have been abducted and tortured in the region since 2005, in response to Balochistan’s legitimate demands for its rights.” Many of those missing “have been brutally murdered and disposed off, in what Amnesty International has termed ‘kill and dump’ operations. These operations are then being used to justify the deplorable revenge-killings of non-Baloch, worsening the situation even more.”

“There have been attempts to question the policies that have led to this situation, but to no avail. We urge the elected civilian government as well as the judiciary, the military, the opposition, the media, the bureaucracy and the citizens of Pakistan to work together and ensure accountability, justice, and due process of law,” ended the statement.1

For various reasons, those involved were unable to make the initiative public at that time. The kill and dump operations not only continue but have also spread to Sindh and northern areas since then.

The LUMS management cancelled the 6 April event, under pressure from “the government” they said in a statement later. According to initial reports, two unidentified men claiming to be from the intelligence agencies had visited LUMS and ordered them to cancel the event or be ready to face the consequences.

However, it is not so easy to silence people any more. On 11 April, three days after the Balochistan seminar was cancelled at LUMS, it was held at Kuch Khaas, a popular gallery–café in Islamabad, featuring only one of the original speakers, Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, a columnist and Baloch rights activist. Talpur also addressed students at LUMS a few days later, on 15 April.

Unsilencing Balochistan-  Take 2, at T2F. Photo: Sabeen Mahmud

Unsilencing Balochistan- Take 2, at T2F. Photo: Sabeen Mahmud

On 24 April, Sabeen Mahmud hosted the panel featuring most of those who had been prevented from speaking in Lahore. Besides Talpur, there was Mama Qadeer, Chairman of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VMBP), and VMBP General Secretary Farzana Majeed. She titled the event, held at The Second Floor (T2F), the café–bookstore she ran, as “Unsilencing Balochistan—Take 2.”

As the world now knows, she was permanently silenced after the seminar ended, shot dead in cold blood by two assassins soon after she left the venue.

‘Enlightened Martyrs’

Sabeen Mahmud joins the ongoing, and lengthy list of Pakistan’s “enlightenment martyrs” (a term revised from “secular martyrs” that I used in an op-ed piece published in the News International on 9 June 2011; not all those who are killed for defending progressive values were necessarily “secular”). My use of the term “enlightenment” was an attempt to reclaim it from the so-called “enlightened moderation” imposed on Pakistan by then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. For all his “secular” credentials, Musharraf’s policies led to an escalation of violence against those who are genuinely enlightenment partisans from all shades of political opinion. What I wrote in 2011 tragically still holds true today:

This is not just a series of ‘incidents’ but a tacitly agreed upon plan operating under a culture of impunity for both the state and the insurgents, fostered, it must be noted, by non-elected arms of the state. All demands for accountability, and for these acts to be tried and punished as criminal offences have so far come to naught.

The “genocide” of progressive Pakistani intellectuals and activists continues. “Genocide” generally refers to the deliberate destruction of an ethnic community. In Pakistan, the term has also been used to refer to the deliberate targeting of Shia and Ahmadi doctors, professionals and intellectuals (militant religious extremists see them as apostates who should be killed). The violence often follows public slander, maligning and propaganda against those targeted. (I wrote about the target killing of Shia doctors back in 2002).

Over the last few years, in the context of the “enlightenment martyrs,” the term can be also applied to “the tribe of Pakistanis who have publicly proclaimed or implicitly practiced the enlightenment agenda of freedom of conscience,” I wrote in 2011. “They may have very different, even opposing, political views but they are people who are engaged knowingly or unknowingly with spreading ‘enlightenment’ values.” (Also see citizens’ statement on human rights defenders in Pakistan, Jan 2012).

The murder of such people is part of an ongoing “intellecticide”—a term I had encountered in a press release issued by the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). Since the start of the Taliban insurgency in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa, “a planned holocaust of the enlightened and educated people is underway,” stated the CPP after educationist Latifullah Khan was murdered in Dir, Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa in November 2010.

Calling this trend a “rampant ‘intellecticide’,” the CPP urged the international community to take note “as not a day passes without the target killing or kidnapping of a university professor, chancellor, doctor, enlightened teacher or a leftist, democratic, progressive political worker.”

Human rights activist Naeem Sabir

Human rights activist Naeem Sabir

This has not changed. Those I had listed in 2011 included the respected professor Saba Dashtiyari in Quetta, investigative journalist Saleem Shehzad, the outspoken Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, and two human rights defenders—Federal Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, and in Khuzdar, Balochistan, Naeem Sabir, coordinator of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

There are many others, including journalists forced to walk a tightrope between the military and the militants. Many have been killed in Balochistan; their murders remain to be investigated and go largely unnoticed in the mainstream media.

The assassins “may perhaps belong to different groups,” said the HRCP, but the murders were “the work of militants out to eliminate anyone who raises his voice against persecution of the vulnerable people.”

Naeem Sabir, associated with HRCP since 1997, had been targeted off and on, as HRCP noted, “by minions of the state (for)… his truthful coverage of human rights abuses.” A shadowy group calling itself the “Baloch Musala Difa Tanzeem” (Armed Baloch Defence Committee) claimed responsibility. Locals say that such groups operate at the behest of those who do not want to be known.

Cannot Ignore Private Actors

While protesting human rights abuses by the state, we cannot ignore or condone similar violations by private actors, no matter who they are, even if their actions are in response to the state’s violations. One can empathise with the anger of the Baloch. But revenge killings only turn victims into oppressors, making it even harder to emerge from a downward spiral.

General Musharraf’s military operation of August 2006, in which the elderly Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed, exacerbated the downward spiral, sparking off a wave of target killings of the non-Baloch, particularly educationists and civil servants. Shadowy groups with long names like the one that killed Naeem Sabir sometimes claim responsibility but most often the murderers remain “unidentified assailants.”

The genocide of Pakistan’s progressive intellectuals is not limited to Balochistan. The motive is all too often rooted in being able to continue financial exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. There is often a criminal nexus between hired mercenaries, drug, water and land mafias, religious extremist organisations, political parties and state agencies. Any or a combination of these may be behind the murders of prominent grass-roots activists like Nisar Baloch, who was trying to prevent public land grabs in Karachi, the fisherfolk leaders Haji Ghani and Abu Bakar, who spearheaded a movement against the destruction of the mangrove forests along the coast, and Perween Rahman of Orangi Pilot Project, who was empowering the local community in a low-income area for their rights.

Prof. Saba Dashtiyari giving an interview. Photo courtesy Homayoon Mobaraki

Prof. Saba Dashtiyari giving an interview. Photo courtesy Homayoon Mobaraki

Saba Dashtyari was doing something more dangerous than exposing human rights abuses or threatening the land mafia. He was opening young minds to progressive thought, running “kind of a (liberal) university within the (strictly controlled) university,” as his former student Malik Siraj Akbar wrote in a moving obituary:

The disparate group of students around him often comprised ‘progressive and liberals;’ they clutched books by ‘free thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Russian fiction by Leo Tolstoy or Maxim Gorky’, or Syed Sibte Hasan and Dr. Mubarak Ali. Their discussions ranged ‘from politics, religion, revolutions, nationalism to taboos like sex and homosexuality…’ He contributed his salary ‘to impart cultural awareness and secular education’. The State, on the other hand, is ‘constructing more and more religious schools to counter the liberal nationalist movement’ which only accelerates the process of right-wing radicalisation.

This is what Sabeen Mahmud was also doing—opening minds, providing a platform for civilised discussion on contentious issues.

Out to undermine or eliminate such people is Pakistan’s “establishment” that I define as the sections of state that are engaged in establishing Pakistan’s “Islamic” identity and determining the “national interest.” They include “non-state actors” and religious militants. They decide who is a patriot or a Muslim. Social media has provided them with more avenues to defame and malign people in an attempt to build public opinion against progressive individuals and thought.

Perween Rahman: by K. B. Abro, Dawn

Perween Rahman: by K. B. Abro, Dawn

Today, as in 2011, many of those who are picked off and killed in mysterious circumstances tend to be those who stand against this “establishment.” In a situation where there is lack of rule of law and criminal gangs flourish, with the kind of linkages mentioned above, such murders are all too often passed off as being the work of “unknown assailants” who will never get caught, tried and punished.

Many have for some years been comparing the situation to 1971. Just before Bangladesh’s liberation, extremists trying to kill progressive ideas in the new country massacred progressive intellectuals. “Is a similar mindset at work in what’s left of Pakistan?” I asked in 2011. “Extremists know they cannot win the argument so they silence the voices that make the argument.”

People Speak Out

The signs of hope I saw then included the unprecedented number of people speaking out. These voices have increased in number, demanding accountability for the violence and urging the government to address Balochistan’s long-standing grievances about economic and political disenfranchisement, and human rights abuses.

Karachi University students and faculty crowd the lobby outside the Arts Auditorium, locked by the administration

Karachi University students and faculty crowd the lobby outside the Arts Auditorium, locked by the administration

Besides the well-attended events on Balochistan human rights violations held in Islamabad on 11 April at Kuch Khaas, and at LUMS in Lahore on 15 April, less than two weeks after Sabeen’s murder, a larger event on the issue was held on 6 May, organised by Karachi University Teachers Against War and Oppression. The event had been announced weeks earlier and the organisers went ahead with it despite threats and intimidation, even after the university management, apparently on its own accord—perhaps following the lead of the private university LUMS that had backed down, and frightened by Sabeen Mahmud’s murder—revoked permission for the event. The administration blocked outsiders from entering university premises and locked the auditorium of the Arts Lobby where the seminar was to be held.

Students and faculty defiantly crowded the hallway and held the seminar anyway, outside the locked auditorium. They sneaked in members of the public in their own transport. The presenters who had been refused permission at LUMS, and who had spoken at Sabeen’s T2F, addressed this gathering.

Protestors, holding daily public protest vigils in Karachi demanding justice for Sabeen Mahmud, also hold placards calling to #unsilencePakistan.

But the killings continue.

The “Unsilencing Pakistan” idea of June 2011 included the need to document the brave voices of Pakistan, stress the enormity of the crimes, build public awareness, attention, and pressure as well as push for legal proceedings against the culprits.

Even as the idea is being revived, and the work done then being taken forward, one cannot help wondering how many more will we lose meanwhile to this ongoing “intellecticide.”

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