On April 25, prominent Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead minutes after hosting a panel discussion on Balochistan, one of Pakistan’s poorest provinces. Balochistan hosts a separatist insurgency led by Baloch nationalists, who are suspected of conspiring with neighboring India to destabilize and sabotage the country’s economic progress.
The event, held at Mahmud’s coffee shop in Karachi, highlighted human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by the Pakistani army. It was originally scheduled to take place at a university in Lahore but was canceled at the request of local officials. When the tragic news of her death came, Pakistani journalists and activists speculated that Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country’s powerful spy agency, must have been behind the killing. Some columnists even made subtle accusations.
Despite rampant speculation about Mahmud’s killers, evidence implicating the ISI remains scarce. And the question of whether the ISI was involved in her murder appears irrelevant at this point. By equating criticism of human rights abuses with tacit endorsement of anti-state elements, the agency has already endangered the lives of many critical activists. Pakistanis should instead be more concerned about the reasons their lives are in peril.
To be sure, this is not the first time the ISI has been implicated in a violent act of repression. In 2011 journalist Saleem Shehzad was murdered after breaking a story on an Al-Qaeda cell in the Pakistani army. A local inquiry recently concluded that there are no known perpetrators, but “U.S. officials had reliable evidence that showed the ISI was responsible for Shehzad’s murder,” according to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists.
In April 2014 prominent news anchor Hamid Mir was shot and wounded in Karachi days after he reported that the army was committing genocide in Balochistan. He blamed the ISI for attempted assassination during an appearance before a judicial commission.
A culture-neutral Pakistan
Mahmud’s name was already on the hit list of many extremist outfits. But none of them have claimed responsibility for her killing. However, the eulogies that permeated TV screens after her death were made vacuous by the fact that none mentioned the event she hosted minutes before her murder. In fact, Pakistan’s typically sensationalist media showed remarkable restraint by referring to the event as a seminar, proving how any discussion on Balochistan has become taboo.
Pakistan confers unique privileges on its military. First, Pakistan is an Islamic republic, making the interplay between state and religion an inescapable reality. The army uses Islam, the only common denominator in this culturally diverse country, to propel a nationalistic ideology that is key to its vision of progress and supposed national security interests. As a result, it has become a self-appointed guardian of the Islamic faith.
This is why any criticism of state or military is considered synonymous with insulting Islam. This makes it difficult to have a meaningful debate about military policy without being labeled an unpatriotic secular — a highly loaded term that can land critics in great danger.
Second, the military sees Pakistan’s salvation in economic liberalism and the emergence of a vibrant entrepreneurial class. As Pakistani academic Ayesha Siddiqa points out, the military considers economic prosperity the sole indicator of modernity. However, with its ethnic, historic, linguistic and sectarian demarcations, Pakistan is resistant to the culture-neutral prerequisites for modern commerce. Demands for the respect of ethnic diversity and the rights of minority groups are seen as tribal agendas instigated by Pakistan’s archfoe, India.
In Pakistan, even the mildest criticism of the army and the state’s disastrous experiments with nationalism and terrorism could provoke the lethal ire of unrecognizable assailants.
The impaling of cultural and political diversity in the name of national security interests is being widely practiced in Balochistan. Human rights violations in the province come in the form of abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings. Moreover, since most of soldiers are from the relatively prosperous and politically dominant Punjab province, the military presence in Balochistan is seen as a full-blown Punjabi occupation.
Despite these criticisms, the army has evaded accountability, shifting emphasis from its actions to the alleged collusion between Balochi separatists and the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW. This has rendered Balochistan a battleground in a proxy war between the two countries, so whatever happens there is either denied or is an unspeakable necessity of war.
The army insists that in the skewed paradigms of covert wars, national security takes precedence over democratic principles. And critics who cry foul over reports of human rights violations are ignorant of the country’s invisible challenges and the steps needed to ensure the sovereignty and integrity of the republic and its ideology.
This narrative lumps together liberals into the convenient but unrepresentative category of anti-state elements or unpatriotic seculars. The reckless misrepresentation and deliberate misinformation about activists’ concerns and their agendas provoke religious and nationalist foot soldiers who are funded and nurtured by the army to provide strategic depth against India.
As the region’s geopolitical landscape changed after 9/11, many of these groups splintered away from state-directed operations to pursue the violent imposition of their own interests within Pakistan’s borders. The cumulative outcome amounts to incitement of violence against seculars, liberals and progressives. It is unrealistic to expect that the Pakistani army is unaware of these dynamics. The prevailing fear is that even the mildest criticism of the army and the state’s disastrous experiments with nationalism and terrorism will continue to provoke the lethal ire of these unrecognizable assailants.
In the coming months, voices will be raised, but their volume will be tempered; words will be spoken, but their language will be ambiguous. Many will lie low, fearing that the best-intentioned questions will be answered extrajudicially. Mahmud was a victim of the army’s cynical ploy. And the dim light that she saw at the end of the tunnel might be the glint of another bullet.