Missing people, patriots and the protection of social media
On 4th January 2016, Pakistan ceased to be an azad (‘free’) country to the spouse of Ahmed Waqas Goraya. Ahmed was reportedly one of the administrators of a controversial Facebook page that aired social liberal content, and posted material critical of state and its military activities. His wife, whose feelings we could neither comprehend nor purport to do so, posted an emotional plea on Facebook for the safe return her husband, whom she describes as patriotic.
At whom this plea is being directed, is not specified. In fact, it cannot be specified because such is the level of azadi that we’ve been bestowed. We assume simply that is a prayer, sent out desperately into the abyss of cyberspace.
Today, our country is a little less ‘azad’ than it was a few weeks ago. This sharp decline in the oxygen available to Pakistani liberals and leftists can be exemplified by the messages I’ve been receiving from friends and fellow journalists all week. “Be careful”.
Be careful about what, I wonder? These fellow bloggers, columnists, and activists – all citizens of Pakistan – have to live in fear of whom, precisely? What predator is set loose in these cold, well-guarded streets of Islamabad; prowling completely undetected by the state? There are no crimes that we recall committing. And if some believes otherwise, aren’t there legal venues for accusing us of these crimes and investigating them fairly?
Is this predator’s eagerness to take matters entirely into its own hand, an absence of faith in the system? Or does it follow a haunting realization that the victim has, in fact, committed no crime that a fair court can punish.
We’ve seen this before many times. The culture of anti-state or anti-theocratic writers and activists, or even their friends and aides, disappearing without a trace, is hardly a recent invention. This culture has harangued Balochistan for a lot longer than the adoption of these cases by key activists in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi. Acknowledgement of the direness of the situation and the illegality of these occurrences in the light of our own laws, must be not be mistaken for apologia of violent militarism or terrorism.
Thousands of people have disappeared without trace in Balochistan since the little-known insurgency began gaining momentum about nine years ago. Many have turned up dead. According to the Federal Ministry of Human Rights, 936 bodies have been found in Balochistan since 2011. The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) claims 1200 recorded cases of dumped bodies. One of these victims was Jalil Reki – a prominent political activist from Quetta. While the government has blamed such tragedies on infighting among insurgents, Jalil’s mother had a different narrative to share. “They came to our house in three vehicles. These were the vehicles of agencies. They took away Jalil,” she told the BBC.
Of course, the rumours of state involvement in these matters never truly peaked until the murder of Sabeen Mehmood. Sabeen was driving home with her mother after an interactive discussion on ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ at her social forum, ‘The Second Floor’. This was the same event that LUMS had cancelled not too long ago under suspicious circumstance, about which Dr. Taimur Rehman – a faculty member and prominent leftist activist – had the following to say to Pakistan Today:
“A delegation from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) visited LUMS in the evening and presented a letter calling for cancellation of the talks. They said that Balochistan is a sensitive issue and that the moot could be used to malign Pakistan,” said Dr Rehman, adding that the intelligence officials were firm in their directive.
The ongoing operations against leftist activists – like Samar Abbas, president of the Civil Progressive Alliance of Pakistan – has been accompanied by the usual right-wing rhetoric aimed at victim-smearing. Jibran Nasir has called for the arrest of the admins of ‘Pakistan Defense’ – a Facebook page that has accused the missing activists of blasphemy, despite any real evidence to back their claims.
Nothing can be said with absolute certainty in the lack of real evidence. But we are frustrated at being unable to state who’s the primary suspect in these cases. A few bold editorials aside, we are yet unable to state who benefits the most from the abductions of perceptibly ‘anti-state’ activists and academics. We cannot state our findings, as we study the historical pattern of such disappearances, and the political views of those who have disappeared. We are unable to state freely our anguish at these extrajudicial kidnappings and killings, and the apparent helplessness of the state in this matter.
So we hang on for another day, and another, and wonder how long we can go before we finally state the obvious.