The Pakistani activist Sabeen Mahmud's murder has shocked the nation's progressive circles. She was killed in Karachi Friday evening after The Second Floor (T2F), a social forum she directed, had organized an event to discuss forced disappearances in the country's largest province of Balochistan. The Pakistani military and the intelligence agencies are believed to be responsible for widespread human rights abuse in Balochistan, the resource-rich province where the ethnic Baloch nationalists are fighting for a separate homeland.
Since civil conversations on Balochistan directly criticize the country's armed forces, authorities in the intelligence services do whatever it takes to prevent or disrupt such talks. The event Sabeen's organization had organized was actually supposed to take place at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan's equivalent of Harvard, a top-class school for urban elite. But the LUMS management had to cancel the program because the army had objected to such events that highlighted its controversial operations against the Baloch citizens and confirmed the accusations of rights violations in Balochistan by providing a platform to families of the victims of state oppression.
While some murders remain mysterious and they leave us all speculate about the forces behind such incidents, Sabeen's seems like an evident case wherein it should not be hard to trace the roots of her killers. Days before hosting Friday's talk on Balochistan, Sabeen, according to her close friends, had been receiving threats to cancel the event. She was under pressure and having second thoughts whether or not she should let the event happen. All this background conversation was taking place two days before her murder in an email that was sent to the panelists of Friday's talk and to many of her close friends, including this writer. Everyone believed that the event would go smoothly and it actually did. However, the aftermath of the event turned ugly when Sabeen was shot dead and unidentified attackers critically injured her mother.
Sabeen's murder will hopefully open doors for even difficult conversations in Pakistan about race, diversity, equality and human rights. Pakistan has used military force, media propaganda and political proxies to keep the rest of the country ignorant about Balochistan where several journalists, lawyers, professors, students, human rights activists and politicians have been killed with absolute impunity. This tragedy should remind the educated Pakistanis that silencing people because of difference of opinion is not fiction but a reality that the people of Balochistan experience every single day. Had we stopped it the day it began in Balochistan, this madness would not come to the streets of karachi.
In most cases, the Pakistani security forces have been blamed for carrying out these killings of government opponents from the ethnic Baloch community. The voice of independent human rights organizations and local people barely reached the national mainstream debate because of Islamabad's strong and effective propaganda machinery that it is capable to easily and immediately distract public attention from the illegal policies the army is pursuing in Balochistan. The government has discredited the indigenous people's complaints and also succeeded in promoting a one-sided narrative that the unrest in Balochistan is only caused by 'our enemies' [referring to India, Israel and the United States] and the army is out there only to fix the 'anti-nationals'.
This official narrative is gradually losing its authenticity because of increased interactions between the Baloch political activists, journalists and human rights defenders and their counterparts elsewhere in Pakistan. This nexus has produced such results that have greatly discomforted and embarrassed the army. No longer convinced that the army has no blood of the Baloch people in its hands, liberal urban educated Pakistanis have begun to side with the Baloch instead of those accused of committed human rights. Sabeen will be remembered as one courageous Pakistani activist who sacrificed her life by standing against oppression and injustice with the people of a neglected an impoverished province of her country. Support from the Pakistani liberals like Sabeen has culminated in more opportunities for the Baloch to appear on the national news channels, participate at authoritative discussions to share the actual situation in Balochistan and gain support for their demand i.e. the recovery of hundreds of missing Baloch persons and equal treatment as citizens.
The Pakistani establishment has mainly been held responsible for the attacks on Baloch intellectuals but now these attacks have been extended to the non-Baloch elite as well should they decide to stand on the side of the Baloch instead of the armed forces. Last year, one of Pakistan's top television talk-show hosts Hamid Mir was badly injured in an assassination attempt in Karachi. He blamed the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) for plotting the failed murder attempt because he had extensively covered the conflict in Balochistan and provided airtime to perspectives that criticized the army for misusing their official authority against the civilians. Mir is a popular journalist and the attack on him did not silence the national conversation on Balochistan but increased the intellectual curiosity across the country even among those who did not previously care much about Balochistan. Those who wanted to kill Mir had a clear message for him: If you are not with us, you are with the enemy (the Baloch) and you will be treated like them.
Sabeen's murder will increase the national and international debate about what Pakistan is actually doing in Balochistan. The Pakistani authorities should realize that it is not possible to eliminate every single individual who questions and criticizes their policies. By bringing hard policy questions on a table for an open conversation and public debate, Sabeen proved herself as an ardent believer in democracy but by failing to defend her right to difference of opinion and protecting her life, Islamabad proved itself as an ineffective and faulty democracy.
Targeting the urban friends of Balochistan will not necessarily silence the debate on Balochistan. It will clearly push Pakistan in another age of public awareness, more public debate on human rights. Urban Pakistan has just begun to witness the same harrowing experience what rural Balochistan had been facing for decades. The response from the educated urban activists to brazen events such as the murder of Sabeen will surely be more strident than the protest of the underrepresented Baloch activists whose voice is seldom heard in the nation's mainstream media. A brave, articulate activist has left Pakistan and this world. She will only be emulated by the future generations of young Pakistani girls who will stand heroically against injustice and oppression.