On Friday, the 24th of April, Pakistani social activist Sabeen Mahmud was shot and murdered by unknown assailants in Karachi. Mahmud had been on her way home from a talk organised by her organisation, The Second Floor (T2F) on the conflict in Balochistan, where a secessionist movement has been ongoing ever since the creation of Pakistan. The talk, titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2’ featured Mama Abdul Qadeer and Farzana Baluch – both outspoken critics of the government’s atrocities and human rights abuses by security agencies. She was undoubtedly aware of the incredible risk that she had taken on by trying to promote civil dialogue about the issue. A similar event at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) had been cancelled a few weeks prior to the incident in the face of pressure from multiple fronts – most notably from the ISI, Pakistan’s shadowy and powerful intelligence agency.
Mahmud’s death serves as yet another reminder of the danger faced by those in our neighbouring country who refuse to tow the line of the powers that be – mainly the Pakistani Army. While Pakistan has made a point to publicise the conflict in Kashmir and attempted to mobilise support for the secessionist movement there on arguments of self-determination and oppression by Indian security forces, the Balochistan issue has not received a tenth of that attention, despite disturbingly similar circumstances, down to hundreds of ‘missing people’: Baloch men and women picked up by Pakistani security forces and never seen or heard from again.
Balochistan is a province in the western part of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, and also its largest province. Despite its rich natural resources, it remains Pakistan’s poorest and most neglected province. The historical hegemony of ethnic Punjabis in Islamabad and Lahore, Pakistan’s centres of power, has meant that other ethnic and linguistic groups are entirely ignored at best, and persecuted at worst. The Baloch, a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, have been at the receiving end of inequalities for the past 60 years, leading to the birth of many organisations which believe in an armed struggle to liberate Balochistan. Foremost amongst these is the Baloch Liberation Army or BLA. In their crackdown against these groups which began in 2005, the Pakistani Army has reportedly committed hundreds of human rights violations, including infamous ‘kill and dump’ operations where individuals: suspected militants, opposition leaders and even regular, apolitical citizens, have been picked up by security forces, murdered, and their bodies unceremoniously dumped.
The murder of Mahmud, however, showed the spillover effect of the conflict outside Balochistan, and served as a chilling warning to those who continue to raise their voices against the official position of the government, which denounces all separatists as terrorists and brutally suppresses dissent, often through non-state methods such as contract killings and hiring hitmen. In a country where democracy has existed in short, tempestuous bursts between long periods of totalitarian military rule, the freedom of speech of those who wish to make a difference is, to put it exceedingly mildly, strained. Activists and journalists who bring uncomfortable truths out in the public domain, or ask questions that the powers that be would rather not answer, are regularly silenced through intimidation, and when that does not work, through murder.
One can only hope that these brave men and women, pioneers of a new Pakistan free from the religious dogma and persecution of minorities that has plagued it since its inception, continue their thankless battles against the myriad of issues that enable the powerful to retain power and perpetuate hatred, ignorance and paranoia in the masses. People like Sabeen Mahmud serve as an inspiration to thousands of Pakistanis who are tired of the way their government treats its people, and her death has catalysed a movement where more and more young Pakistanis are demanding to know more about Balochistan and the turmoil that exists there.
Perhaps nothing captures the spirit of Sabeen Mahmud more succinctly than what she told an interviewer from Wired in 2013 – ‘Fear is just a line in your head. You can choose which side of the line you want to be on.’