By Najam Sethi
08 May 2015
The premeditated assassination of Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi on April 24 is an indescribable human tragedy with political costs for both civil society and the “deep” state of Pakistan. Consider.
Sabeen was a gentle, caring and concerned citizen-representative of Pakistan’s civil society. Her NGO T2F was a home for struggling artists, musicians, political outcasts, rights activists, feminists, liberals, minorities and other disadvantaged, marginalized or voiceless sections of society. She had received threats from extremists for providing a platform against hate speech, sectarianism and religious fundamentalism. When she offered a speaking venue to Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed, who have long been agitating for the rights of the “missing persons of Balochistan”, she knew she would incur the displeasure of the deep state that is accused of “disappearing” insurgent-separatists and their sympathizers in Balochistan. But, as she wrote in an email to a friend before the event, she didn’t expect “them” to come out “all guns blazing” against her. After all, Iftikhar Chaudhry, ex-Chief Justice of Pakistan, and fellow judges had already blazed a trail investigating the “disappeared” and no physical harm had befallen them. Similarly, the organisers of the LUMs seminar in Lahore on “Unsilencing Balochistan” had only suffered a cancellation of the event and some inspired bad-mouthing on TV later, while the Balochistan event at Kuch Khaas in Islamabad with the same participants had gone off without a hitch. More significantly, the most outspoken voices of Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed, Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, and their supporters, had not been silenced by brute force. So whodunit and why?
Obviously, the finger is straightaway pointed at elements of the deep state that don’t want anyone to rake up the issue of the “missing persons” of Balochistan. In the attempted assassination of journalist Hamid Mir last year in Karachi, the deep state’s hostility was established as a fact after Mir charged it formally of trying to eliminate him for supporting the cause of Mama Qadeer and his colleagues. Earlier, the killing of journalist Saleem Shehzad (while he was also “disappeared”) for exposing Taliban-Al Qaeda cells within the deep state itself had also warranted such suspicions and allegations.
But disquieting questions arise. Sabeen was the least “offensive” agitator of all such “trouble-makers” in the book of the deep state. Furthermore, her murder has made headlines in the international and social media like never before when Shehzad was killed or Mir was attacked or the LUMs seminar was cancelled. This consequence was not too difficult to anticipate or predict. But it is a cause of great anger in the deep state not just because it highlights the issue of Baloch separatism but also because it holds the deep state responsible for the “disappeared”. It follows, therefore, that if the deep state ever harboured any motive to silence civil-society activists from raising the issue of Balochistan, surely it would have been strongly dissuaded from murdering Sabeen because of the adverse consequences of its fallout and blowback. Who else might have “benefitted” from killing Sabeen?
The religious extremists, especially those from the Red Mosque brigade who had been challenged by Sabeen and fellow-activist Jibran Nasir, certainly had a motive. They had also threatened her. The MQM, too, had cause to be angry at the deep state. It has been at the receiving end of the stick from the military, with Altaf Bhai publicly thundering against the “targeting” of Mohajirs in the continuing Karachi operation, and benefits from discrediting the military for the alleged murder of a female rights activist. So did India’s intelligence agencies. No less than the corps commanders of the army chief’s cabinet have collectively accused India of fomenting insurgency in Balochistan and terrorism in Karachi and FATA in pursuit of its declared intent to implement a policy of “offensive defense” by proxies against Pakistan. It is also no secret that India is smarting from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s attempt to cozy up to Pakistan and will try to expose the Pakistani military in bad light.
Whoever killed Sabeen, one thing is clear. If the intent of the assassins was to silence dissent by evoking fear, the opposite may well happen in the emotionally charged atmosphere. Social media is up in arms. Rights activists have announced plans to hold a seminar in Karachi University on the missing persons of Balochistan where the speakers will be Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed. They are also refusing to cow down to pressure from university authorities forbidding them from holding the seminar. Doubtless, others will be emboldened to follow suit and the wounded deep state may be compelled to step back from hurling its customary threats. In fact, if the deep state is not guilty as charged, it should swiftly hunt down Sabeen’s killers and exonerate itself. Anything less than that will not be palatable.
Rest in peace, Sabeen. Your great cause will continue to inspire many others to raise the voice of the oppressed and repressed.