Ominous Signs


*Originally published in The Nation.

At least six activists have been reported missing within a week.

The editorial in The News was correct in emphasizing “that the near-simultaneous disappearances are linked since all four of the activists shared the same approach, were critical of government and establishment policies and were prominent online and on social media.”

The space for expression and dissent appears to be increasingly shrinking and shriveling. That notable individuals like Salman Haider, a human rights activist and professor at Fatima Jinnah University, can vanish in broad daylight from the capital is a frightening revelation that people’s prominence and profiles can offer no protection or deterrence from the danger and threat of disappearance.

A few weeks back, a small and peaceful demonstration by the Democratic Students Alliance in Lahore, organized in response to the Islam Bachao rally taken out earlier, was stopped and the participants detained at the Racecourse police station for several hours. This crackdown on the peaceful practice of basic constitutional rights and freedoms, along with recent developments, is a grim start to the new year for the country.

Pakistan’s civil society is neither ignorant nor impervious to repression. In fact, it has possessed a history riddled with struggles against censorship, suspension of civil liberties, arbitrary arrests, and persecution under the various dictatorial regimes. However, to witness the revival and replication of these measures and instruments during the stint of a democratic government is an alarming, outrageous and deplorable stain on its claims of a democratic character and credentials.

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A glance back at the last two or three years also yields a bleak picture associated with a deteriorating situation spanning academic freedoms, press freedoms and civil liberties in the country.

With regards to this, a profile of Mohammad Hanif in the New Yorker aptly captured the constraints of the English-language press in Pakistan and encapsulated a series a incidents related to their breach:

“The Pakistani press corps works with a strange mixture of privilege and constraint. Pick up one of the better English-language newspapers—the News or the Dawn—and you will find penetrating coverage of national security, poverty, and governmental corruption. But, beyond shifting and mysterious boundaries, no journalist may stray without risk. In 2010, Umar Cheema, who had written about dissent within the military, was picked up by men in police uniforms who were widely presumed to be I.S.I. agents. They shaved his head, sexually humiliated him, and dropped him miles from his home, with a warning to stop. The following year, Saleem Shahzad published stories asserting that the armed forces had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda. He was beaten to death and his body dumped in a canal.”

In 2015, a scheduled panel discussion on the “history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan” at the Lahore University of Management Sciences was forcibly booted and cancelled after ‘external’ intervention.

In 2016, there occurred the passage of measures such as the Cyber Crime Bill and the move to condemn Cyril Almeida, after much fuss and furore, to the Exit Control List, after his report on civil-military relations.

It is both interesting and worrying to note that discussions within spheres such as a private, often touted as elite, university in an urban provincial capital, and a leading English language newspaper, which were previously considered largely off-limits to state encroachment, now risk subjection to the control of a state, a political, military and intelligence establishment, that seems to be growing increasingly intolerant of any sign of dissent or criticism.

If the disappearances of these activists has been orchestrated in order to stifle criticism of state institutions and policies, it a short-sighted move since, in addition to protests and rallies across cities, the disappearances are being covered by major national and international media outlets and human rights organizations.

Dissent, criticism, difference of opinion, and activism are critical for a living society, and central to a robust democracy. It appears, however, that some state organs or some actors in the country wish to stem these in their myopic drive to steer Pakistan into ruin.

The sudden spurt of blasphemy allegations and accusations of being “anti-Islam” directed at some of the missing activists also poses a perilous situation for them even if they are recovered, since the mere suspicion of blasphemy is enough to continually and permanently endanger an individual’s life in Pakistan.

It is still hoped that the activists will be recovered safe and sound, however, even if they return, the climate of fear and intimidation engendered by their disappearances will remain. The message of these disappearances is hard to miss: quieten or be silenced.

A strongly-worded editorial in Dawn brought to light an important assumption and accusation operating in this entire issue:

“The sanitised language — ‘missing persons’, ‘the disappeared’, etc — cannot hide an ugly truth: the state of Pakistan continues to be suspected of involvement in the disappearance and illegal detentions of a range of private citizens.”

The matter of “disappeared” and “missing” persons began in Balochistan, and today it has reached the capital. There is no escape for the state from this, for it is either complicit or it is incompetent. And for the rest of the country, these are ominous signs.

-Hafsa Khawaja

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Far From A Conclusion


*Originally published in Pakistan Today:

Mirrored by a decline in the number of terrorist attacks and incidences and the restoration of a semblance of law and order, Pakistan’s fight against terrorism has recently begun to be touted as a story of success.

However, within the month of December alone, a number of developments occurred which question this assertion. There occurred a siege and attack by a mob of 1,000 people on an Ahmadi mosque in Chakwal, during which a 65-year old man belonging to the persecuted minority suffered and died of cardiac arrest. The Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Sardar Muhammad Yusuf also happened to present a “peace award” to apostle of peace and esteemed ambassador of inter-sectarian harmony Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, who is now a member of the Punjab Assembly after winning the PP-78 Jhang by-election. Furthermore, flocks of people were reported to be drawing to a site at the outskirts of the capital which was revealed to be the grave of Mumtaz Qadri that is now being turned into a shrine. News of the interior ministry’s preparation of the draft of a law which seeks to give military courts, whose term expired on January 7, permanent status also did the rounds. Lastly, while Jibran Nasir struggles to get a case registered against Abdul Aziz for his declared allegiance to ISIS and for incitement of hate against Shias, pressure from the Sunni Tehreek led to the registration of an FIR and a spate of death threats against Shaan Taseer, son of slain governor Salmaan Taseer, for conveying Christmas greetings to Christians in Pakistan and expressing hope of redressal for those subjected to the blasphemy law.

That these developments occurred within the span of a single month is an unsettling realization which also asks for the direction and narrative of Pakistan’s campaign against terrorism and extremism to be probed and reviewed.

A concrete answer to the question and status of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and extremism is found in Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s inquiry report into Quetta’s Civil Hospital attack of 9th August 2016. The 110 page report provides extensive insights into the “monumental failure to combat terrorism and perform basic protocols” especially pertaining to the National Action Plan. It mentions not only a lack of action against proscribed organizations, that have freely held rallies in Islamabad, but also a brazen “cavorting” by key government figures with the heads of these organizations, as was demonstrated by the meeting between the interior minister and Ahmed Ludhianvi of Ahle Sunnat Wal Juma’at. The report further makes mention of lapses, limitations and inadequacies in terms of the tools and methodologies used to investigate attacks; along with sheer negligence in  “silencing extremist speech, literature, and propaganda” and the stark “shortsightedness” of the federal and provincial governments in thwarting terrorism and extremism.

The report is an act of Qazi Isa’s professional integrity and bravery, but it is also a damning expose and indictment of the government, the interior ministry and the failure and façade that is the National Action Plan.

The number of terrorist attacks and incidents in Pakistan may have registered a considerable drop in numbers but they are far from over. In fact, their focus in certain areas and upon certain communities remains as forceful and fatal as ever. The past year alone remains relevant in illustrating this. In 2016, a Shia majlis was attacked in Nazimabad, killing four. But denial about targeted killings of the beleaguered Shia community persist within the wider narrative of the population. Quetta was also frequently besieged by tragedies which have ceaselessly continued to devour and devastate the city. In August, the blast at the Civil Hospital killed an entire generation of the city’s legal community, while the attack on the police training academy took the lives of 61 cadets and guards. In September, suicide-bombers targeted a mosque in Mohmand Agency, and an Imambargah in Shikarpur during Eid prayers. Earlier in 2016, the attacks on Bacha Khan University and Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park took place. The sites for terrorist assaults may have shifted to neglected and orphaned “peripheries” like Quetta and FATA, but the danger and threat persist. And they will linger as long as state institutions remain divided on the matter and continue to keep in place dubious policies and doctrines that bar an unequivocal commitment to counter extremism and terrorism in all tints and tones. This is no longer a contention but a judgement officially articulated and validated by Justice Isa’s report.

On the other hand, the lifted moratorium on the death penalty, perhaps the only implemented measure of the much-hailed National Action Plan, continues to work in full force without any hindrance of transparency and accountability. According to the Justice Project Pakistan, an estimated 400 prisoners have been executed since the lifting of the moratorium, pulling Pakistan to the position of the third most prolific executioner globally. The JPP also states that a slim 16 per cent of the executions carried out since December 2014 were tied to charges of terrorism, while the rest involved juveniles and disabled inmates. The mockery and sham of justice continues at the courts and the gallows.

Moreover, the attack which gave rise to a national sense of urgency in dealing with terrorism has yet to be investigated. The APS attack, which the so-called “paradigm shift” and the National Action Plan were predicated upon, has actually been the subject of a concerted and brazen campaign of silencing and harassment which has been directed at the parents who have been tirelessly and bravely demanding an inquiry and investigation into the ghastly attack. Two years on, an inquiry into the APS attack has not been ordered but actively suppressed.

In light of these realities, as Pakistan steps into 2017 it is necessary to proceed with cautious optimism and realize that the calm engendered by a decline in terrorist attacks is relative and temporary as long as the roots and the many manifestations of the menace are not tackled.

This relative calm should not engender a sense of complacency among the federal and provincial governments whose approach to the issue already comprises craven surrender, prevarications and papering over the problem.

The scourge of terrorism and extremism doesn’t only need to be subdued but stifled and strangled to an end. There exists a dire for a fundamental change in the framework, direction, orientation and agendas of the state and the actors steering them. Neither declarations, nor a rhetoric of resolve and programs like the National Action Plan would suffice. Templates and infrastructures like the NAP can only aid and facilitate actual implementation on ground which demands political will, courage, vision and resolve that repudiate political expediency, cavorting, patronizing, pacifying and pandering to militant, sectarian organizations and the many faces and forms of extremism. Until then, Pakistan’s success against terrorism, drawn from a decrease in the number of attacks, must be recognized as partial success in a war with multiple battles and fronts, a war still far from a conclusion today.

-Hafsa Khawaja

#RecoverAllActivists


When dissent becomes danger, when protest becomes a peril, when the word becomes a threat, when a demand for answers becomes unacceptable, when a handful of people and a handful of Facebook pages become a menace, it becomes even more important, it becomes necessary, to raise your voice, to question, to oppose and to disallow the monopolization of narratives, to disallow the perverse and systematic silencing and stifling, and to stand your ground and confront this march of fear.

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At least four activists have gone missing within this week.

If there is any doubt in your mind regarding the need for activism and the need for us, as a people, to exercise our rights and kick up a furor over what is perpetrated in our name, look no further.

During times like these, one is always faced by the dilemma of whether one should lie low and live to speak another day or to speak even louder. Should personal safety and security assume primacy over all else? Yet there is no safety if the safety of another is endangered or violated. When sectarian murderers rally at the heart of the capital, when interior ministers cavort with the heads of “banned” organisations and when people are picked up and “disappeared” in broad daylight, every act, every effort becomes significant in this fight. No matter how small.

Resist.

Every time makes demands on people, perhaps this is its demand from us. And it is certainly worth a try.

As the great Eqbal Ahmad put it, and this is something I wish to live by: “Lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

If you choose to sit on the sidelines and be “apolitical” during this, that too is a position, and a very political one. Your comfort is complicity.

Today it is them, tomorrow it could be us. It started from Balochistan, it has come to Islamabad. Its appetite for control is insatiable, it’s grip and clasp is huge. Power is unsparing, unrelenting, voracious, unjust. It will stop at nothing until we step in its way.

#RecoverAllActivists