*Originally posted on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:
“Learn about the history, complications, human rights abuses, and the struggle for justice that has been going on in Balochistan.”
Such was the description of an event that was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences today.
Highly-anticipated, Unsilencing Balochistan was scheduled to have a panel including Mama Qadeer (Chairman, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), Farzana Majeed (General Secretary, Voice for Missing Baloch Persons), columnist and activist M. M. Ali Talpur, academic Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Director HRCP I. A. Rehman and activist Sajjad Changhezi. The session was to be moderated by Chief Editor of the Daily Times, Rashid Rahman.
However, yesterday students, staff and faculty at LUMS were abruptly emailed a brief, one-liner by Ali Khan, Chair of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department:
“The scheduled talk has been cancelled.”
While the reasons were clear to the wise, it was still difficult to imagine the stomp of boots within a private academic institution’s premises resonating among its decisions and activities.
Yet a ‘direct order’ by a certain ‘institution of the state’ was conveyed to Ali Khan demanding that the talk on Balochistan be cancelled immediately.
To the utmost furore of the students, Unsilencing Balochistan had become re-silenced even before it could be heard.
It says much about that state of affairs in a country when a discussion in a private university located in modern, urban provincial capital poses a threat to the state; when a few whispers from thousands of strangled voices of suffering and struggle raised to shatter the deathly silence shake the towering walls, overshadowing the state and society, of the corridors of power in the country.
Whispers put to immediate hush shriek of a culture of coercion and injustice, of power and subjugation.
The forced cancellation of the talk at LUMS is but merely a slight brush of the all-pervasive hold that has Balochistan gripped for decades; littered its streets and roads with mutilated bodies, left it with craters for graves and vanished many into thin air.
More importantly, the event’s cancellation is a blatant pursuit of the monopolization of discourse and narratives in Pakistan by the all-mighty and powerful. A pursuit, that is not new, which has previously and continues to subordinate education to certain agendas by the perversion of textbooks in Pakistan through distortions, lies, fabrications and obfuscations.
In the case of the Baloch and Balochistan, the monopolization is so complete, and its absorption so widespread, that challenging or contradicting it has now become a ‘threat’ and abhorrent to ‘the state’. It is a narrative of the sardars, the BLA and the naïve Baloch – manipulated by all to resent and dissent against the utopia that is Pakistan which has been ceaselessly kind and generous to the people of the province.
This narrative does all but exclude the greatest violator of Baloch rights – the Pakistani state and its institutions.
Umair Javed, who also teaches at LUMS, was quick to point out that none of the speakers who were to speak at the event were linked to either of the actors upon which the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan is centered; and that the state’s side of the story on the issue has been fed to us for over 60 years.
People on Twitter were prompt in stating that talks and discussions at LUMS don’t and cannot bring change; they are insignificant. Fair enough. However, then what was so significant and alarming about a discussion within the university that called for its cancellation? It was the persisting monopoly of narrative that the talk at LUMS seemed set to challenge – a narrative that is a product of the carefully-constructed dominant discourse which brands any dissent or dispute to be anti-Pakistan, anti-state ‘propaganda’; a narrative that conflates certain institutions with the country itself, to criticise whom is to malign Pakistan; a narrative that strangles the people for it seeks to strangle their voice. This fight of narratives and discourses is not trivial but a crucial battle in the struggle for a genuine democracy in Pakistan.
And the cancellation is yet another alarming reminder of the necessity to reclaim the discourse in Pakistan, to wrench it away from the hands of the powerful to the people.
Balochistan is bleeding.
And silence in its bruised and bloodied face is very much an accomplice.
And it must be remembered that only the aggressor would stifle and silence the cries and wails of its victims; for it exposes him. And the forced cancellation of the talk sputters the same.
As the cancellation is an assault on freedom of expression, freedom of speech, academic freedom and thoughts; it is an indicator of the palpable limits to the widely-hailed freedom of expression in Pakistan which is only allowed to run rampant upon political actors and groups. It stems from the stream of logic that accepts that a democratically-elected prime minister can be sent to the gallows, another can be humiliated and sent into exile but a military dictator cannot be tried. No, never.
Thus, the #ShameOnLUMS trend which absurdly holds the university at fault for planning such an ‘anti-Pakistan’ event and justifies the subsequent cancellation. The social media trend is but sharply reflective of the pervasive absorption of the dominant narrative regarding Balochistan, which includes conflation of an institution of the state with the state itself, and the consequent acceptance of limitations to academic freedom and discussion in Pakistan – a stark legacy of decades of dictatorships and authoritarianism that is pulsating strong even during an ostensibly democratic period; indicative of where true power lies even today
In a time such as this, the invaluable and timeless words of the great Eqbal Ahmad draw us back to them.
While famously speaking against the brutal army action in East Pakistan in 1971, and how uncanny to find striking relevance, sewn deep in his words for East Pakistan, to Balochistan, he wrote:
“I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy.
However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”
And as the crime of silence reigns today; and if voices are a threat, then speak, nay, scream we shall.