Dark forces are at work. Reports as to numbers differ slightly but it is possible that as many as 11 human rights activists, bloggers and journalists have ‘disappeared’ in the last three to four weeks. ‘Disappeared’ as in being taken away usually at night but sometimes in daytime by ‘unidentified men.’ Their phones are unresponsive or switched off, their families distraught and so far nobody, agency, institution or individual, is offering a credible explanation as to the why’s and wherefore’s of this. They have disappeared from Lahore, Islamabad and reportedly from Karachi as well. All those that have disappeared have been vocal in their opposition to a range of injustices allegedly committed by state entities. Some of them are high-profile such as Salman Haider who went missing on the night of Friday 6th January after visiting friends in Bani Gala. These are not the minnows of social activism and protest; these are independent voices that use a range of platforms including social media to get their message across.
Let us strip away the euphemisms. These are not ‘missing persons’ or ‘disappeared’ they have been abducted, kidnapped, illegally detained — and the prime suspect for this attempt to smother dissent and debate is the state of Pakistan itself. It is almost disingenuous for Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to stand up in the Senate and proclaim that the government ‘is making concerted efforts’ to recover all those recently missing and that the ‘ongoing investigation’ may benefit from CCTV footage obtained via the ‘Safe Cities’ project in Islamabad. The state has at its disposal a vast range of investigatory tools, as well as batteries of CCTV cameras so let us see them effectively deployed.
A demonstration outside the Press Club in Islamabad on Tuesday 11th January saw several hundred people protesting, an unusually high turnout, and there was according to several present a palpable susurrus of fear and intimidation. A concern at ‘who’s next’ and puzzlement as to why there has been this sudden uptick in the desire to muffle dissent — and if it cannot be muzzled by fear then to remove physically those that raised their voices.
At least in theory Pakistan is a pluralist democracy. However the gap between theory and practice has been ever-present, but these events point to a widening of that gap and a willingness of the state to exploit the relative weaknesses of those who have spoken against the worst excesses of the state, that now wishes them crushed.
The frailty of ‘civil society’ lies in its fragmentation and having to exist within a population that has been subject to creeping radicalisation over many years. Those that point to the Zia era as the source of our troubles often neglect to observe that there has been no effective check on the momentum towards an extremist-tolerant population ever since General Zia died in a still-unexplained plane crash close to Bahawalpur. ‘Civil society’ inasmuch as it exists as a loosely unified entity has no political presence either. Collectively — and there is a very broad spectrum of dissent including within civil society itself — it is not allied with any political party in the mainstream. Targeting those that put their heads above the parapet is largely risk-free as beyond social media they are powerless. Their activities may be widely reported but there is no nationally recognised leader, no voice heard above all others.
Those that have been kidnapped present no threat at all to the state. They are in a tiny minority. They may be an irritant, inconvenient even, but have not the heft or traction, the popular support, to come within an inch of raising the national threat level. The real threats to the state lie in embedded extremism and the unwillingness to confront it. Bring these men back into the light. They will have a story to tell — unless they have been silenced forever.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2017.