Shrinking Space for Reason

May 2, 2015 Comments Off on Shrinking Space for Reason
Shrinking Space for Reason
We use words, they use bullets
WHO was afraid of Sabeen Mahmud? Was it the state or a non-state actor that silenced a brave voice of reason? Was it a mere coincidence that she was gunned down after a seminar on Balochistan that she had organised? Or was it one of those shadowy extremist groups who considered her liberal values anathema to their obscurantist worldview? Will we ever know?

Sabeen had apparently received threats from both sides. There are (unconfirmed) reports she was warned not to host Mama Qadeer, a campaigner for the missing persons in Balochistan. The old man has taken up the cause of those wretched souls after receiving the bullet-riddled body of his own missing son. But even his peaceful protests are disapproved of as a serious threat to national security. So, did her defiance cost her her life? Surely some will jump to that conclusion.

But then there are also reports of her receiving threats over the past six months. According to one such report, a warning note with a bullet was sent to her months before the fateful seminar. Her T2F has been a regular venue for enlightened debates and discussions on subjects varying from the blasphemy laws to the persecution of religious minorities.

Sabeen Mahmud’s killing is another reminder of how we are losing space for liberty and freedom of speech.

It is certainly not acceptable to the increasingly intolerant religious right that continues to operate with impunity in the country. Over the last few years, we have seen a steep rise in the number of targeted attacks on rights’ activists in the name of religion. The absence of effective law-enforcement and a policy of appeasement have certainly encouraged the zealots.

Whether it was in the name of national security or in the name of religion, Sabeen’s assassination is another grim reminder of the shrinking space for liberty and freedom of speech in this country. By killing Sabeen, the killers have also sent a message to others championing the cause of human rights and justice. She was certainly the bravest and hence she was targeted. But even in her death she stood tall, inspiring us to fight back.

What is most worrying is the role of intelligence agencies in curbing debate and discussion on the Balochistan situation, particularly the issue of missing persons. Last month, the agencies prevented a seminar on the issue at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, triggering protests by the students and rights groups. There were also some reports about a visit by intelligence personnel trying to stop the Balochistan talk.

If true, the problem will certainly not go away by using highhanded methods. Why are they are so afraid of an old man seeking justice for the brutal murder of his son and a young woman Farzana Baloch wanting to know about the fate of her brother, missing for the past several years?

This issue is serious and cannot be brushed aside. More than anything else illegal detentions and the dumping of bullet-riddled bodies have fuelled Baloch militancy and strengthened separatist groups. The figure of missing persons by some estimates is said to be in the thousands. We never seem to have learnt any lesson from our own history. The use of brute force only breeds anger and alienation. That is what we are seeing in Balochistan today.

True, the Balochistan situation has been made more complicated by alleged external involvement. But it is essentially the alienation of the people and deprivation of rights that makes such interventions possible. Curbing public discussion and peaceful protests over the issue is counterproductive. Instead, the government and security forces must address grievances and human rights violations. Reports of an effort to stop a seminar can only highlight the negative image of the agencies and fuel suspicion of their involvement in the tragic incident.

There has not been any ban on the people who publicly supported the militants taking up arms against the state and those responsible for the beheading of soldiers and massacre of schoolchildren. They regularly appear on television, but no action is taken against them.

But why is the establishment so intolerant of people like Mama Qadeer and Farzana Baloch who just want their voices heard and their grievances addressed? By curbing such voices we push more and more people towards the separatists. The situation in the province is far from stable despite claims of normality.

Amid anger and outrage, the law-enforcement agencies say they are actively pursuing the culprits. The chief military spokesman said the intelligence agencies are also investigating the case. But there seems to be little hope of the murderers being brought to justice. We have yet to see the murderers of the rights activist Rashid Rehman being arrested, let alone tried. The murderer of governor Salmaan Taseer is projected as a hero and the state does not find the courage to carry out his sentence.

There have been several other cases where people have been killed after being accused of blasphemy. How come people continue to be killed with such impunity while the state is unable to take action against them?

Sabeen is believed to have been receiving threats, but no serious efforts were made to investigate the matter. The gunmen on a motorbike who had been following her killed her on a busy road. It was a well-planned targeted attack and the assailants made sure she did not survive. The incident happened a few days after gunmen shot and seriously injured an American woman working with a local medical college for the past 20 years. A shadowy militant group claimed responsibility. But there has not been any such claim in Sabeen’s case.

Of course, there is no dearth of conspiracy theories as happens in this kind of situation. How can one forget the omnipresent ‘foreign hand’? It is always easy to blame external enemies. But it is never clear who they are.

Only militants and extremists benefit from this atmosphere of fear and shrinking space for liberals and moderates. The government’s claim of fighting extremism and militancy is mere rhetoric when the voices of reason are brutally suppressed. That only emboldens the forces of intolerance.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2015


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