Crushing voices of dissent

Activist Sabeen Mahmud’s assassination in Pakistan proves that the state sees in intellectuals a threat to its unitary vision of nationalism.

April 28, 2015 02:18 am | Updated April 02, 2016 06:54 pm IST

“The people who want spaces for discussion are seen as security threats.” Picture shows Sabeen Mahmud. Photo courtesy: Dawn

“The people who want spaces for discussion are seen as security threats.” Picture shows Sabeen Mahmud. Photo courtesy: Dawn

Why kill intellectuals? Why kill feminists? Why kill artists or writers?

On April 24, 40-year-old Sabeen Mahmud, the director of a literary and cultural space in Karachi, The Second Flood (T2F), was assassinated by unknown assailants. She was driving home with her mother after an event at her cultural centre when the assassins shot her five times on a road in the upper class Defence Housing Authority area. The bullets that pierced her shoulder, chest and abdomen killed her before she could reach a hospital. Her mother, who was shot twice, was critically injured.

Mahmud established the cultural centre in 2008 and turned it into a welcoming space, hosting everything from book readings, seminars on philosophy, talks on digital humanities and computer programming to converting it into a playing area for children. A few hours before her killing, she had organised a panel discussion titled “Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)” on enforced disappearances in Balochistan, at T2F.

It was a “Take 2” because the event, originally scheduled to be held on April 9 at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), was cancelled. The University said they received “orders from the government to cancel the event, which was most unfortunate indeed.” When “Take 2” was held in Karachi, it was attended by, among others, Mama Qadeer, a 72-year-old activist for rights in Balochistan. Qadeer’s son Jalil Rekhi went missing in February 2009. Two years later, his mutilated body was found. In October 2013, Qadeer began to walk for over 3,300 kilometres from Quetta to Islamabad, with a small gathering of families that included his grandson, to ask for justice in the case of nearly 3,000 other documented ‘disappearences’.

Targets of the state

Why kill intellectuals? Why kill historians? Why kill scholars of literature?

In March 1971, the Pakistan Army attacked Dhaka University. They killed students, professors — all those whom they believed were sympathisers of the Bangladesh Awami League. They concentrated the attack on Jagannath Hall, a student dormitory. Gary J. Bass’s recent work The Blood Telegram (2013) provides a grim documentation of those killings. In 2013, a Special Court in Dhaka convicted the leaders of the paramilitary organisations attached to the Pakistan Army, al-Badr and al-Shams, of the killings. The names of the victims, which were on a list recovered after the massacre, included historians Abul Khair and Ghiyasuddin Ahmad. We still do not know why these intellectuals were targeted — we only have a belated conviction from the state in Bangladesh, and a continuing silence from Pakistan. One can, however, surmise.

Frantz Fanon, writing on why the anti-colonial struggle targeted doctors and intellectuals, said the colonial doctor or the ethnographer was not merely a healer or an intellectual, but a critical participant in the daily life of the colony; the healers were torturers and the ethnographers were erasers of native pasts. For Fanon, the native doctor and the organic intellectual were the hope for the freed nation — they would carry the knowledge and tools of European thought through the burned colony, and build the new world. Yet, this never occurred. Not in Fanon’s Algeria and not in the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Pakistan. The ill-labelled ‘postcolonial’ state saw in these intellectuals a threat to their unitary visions of nationalism. So, the doctors and intellectuals became targets of the state rather than the builders of a new social. The histories, poetry or languages they produced were deemed too multifarious for the ideals behind One Unit and, now, One Islam. In Karachi, in Swat, in Dhanak, in Quetta, the intellectuals, poets, and healers have been targets for those bent on asserting a unified ideology. The crime of the intellectual is to create the scene of the crime. The scene of the crime is a space — whether concrete or metaphoric — in which dialogue can exist. Their crime is in expressing or harbouring dissent. And the punishment is always death.

Some who are lucky escape to exile. Why target LUMS or T2F for having a conversation on Balochistan?What is so disturbing about Balochistan? Why kill those who ask for such spaces? Since 2005, a war has been raging in Balochistan for self-determination. In the 1930s and 40s, there were anti-colonial struggles for self-determination. From 1973 to 1978, there was a war for local rights, for collective bargaining. This history is analogous to other histories in the north-west and north-east of the Indian subcontinents. It is a history of borderlands and peripheries contesting against imperial and national ideas of control. When this history is peeled, endless debates are discovered between patriots and traitors, the civilised and the barbarians, the developed and the destitute, tribals and the urbanites. The divisions are all stark, and the space for dialogue is non-existent.

Contradictory dreams On April 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan for the first time and signed a number of deals to inaugurate the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will create railways, roads, pipelines, harbours, townships and markets across Balochistan. It will open up gas and oil to the mega-cities of Pakistan and Asia, and pivot the coastal access of Pakistan towards the Indian Ocean. The $46 billion dollar investment will bring political and economic stability to a nation state long dependant on energy cartels of the world. To secure the CPEC, the Pakistani state has promised to create a new 12,000-strong military division to protect the Chinese workers and investments in the region.

This is the dream of a nation state that lies in direct contradiction to the claims of self-representation from Balochistan. Pakistani nationalism, under pressure from religious extremists and military overreach alike, cannot find the political space to listen to the people of Balochistan. To harbour dissent, to absorb critique, is to admit defeat, to belie the dream. The state, along with wide support, deems the Balochi insurgents a threat to this prosperity promised by Capital; its response is to silence them, make them disappear, and eliminate them. On the one side is Reason and Capital; on the other is Indigenity.

And so, the spaces for discussion, and the people who articulate a need for them, are security threats. There is no evidence that Mahmud was killed by officials of the state, and this need not be assumed. Yet, there is also no doubt that Mahmud was eliminated for hosting dialogue that opens up differing perspectives to Pakistani citizens. The identity of the killers is besides the point. It seems unavoidable that Balochi claims will be crushed. Whether economic or sacral nationalism triumphs does not really matter in the end. The “prosperous” economic corridors will be built over the hidden mass graves and the charred dreams of self-autonomy. The dialogue has been silenced.

(Manan Ahmed Asif is a historian of Pakistan. He teaches at Columbia University in the City of New York.)

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