Pakistan’s Secular Martyrs

By Beena Sarwar for The News International

The murder of professor Saba Dashtiyari in Quetta last week, coming on the heels of the killing of investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad, is yet another sign of an ongoing ‘genocide’ of progressive Pakistani intellectuals and activists. ‘Genocide’ generally means the deliberate destruction of an ethnic group or tribe. In this context, it applies to the tribe of Pakistanis who have publically proclaimed or implicitly practiced the enlightenment agenda of freedom of conscience. They may have very different, even opposing, political views but they are people who are engaged knowingly or unknowingly in spreading ‘enlightenment’ values. Perceived to be out to undermine or eliminate members of this tribe are sections of state long engaged in establishing Pakistan’s “Islamic” identity and determining the “national interest”. They decide who is a patriot or a Muslim. Most of those killed in mysterious circumstances over the years were critics of this sate of affairs.

Let’s list some of them (a complete list is not possible here), starting with the former governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer, murdered by an official bodyguard. Contrary to standard operating procedures, the other guards did not open fire on the assailant – who had been assigned to this duty despite his “extremist views” due to which the Special Branch had earlier dismissed him. Barely two months later, two human rights defenders were gunned down — former federal minister for minority affairs Shahbaz Bhatti in Islamabad, and Naeem Sabir, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s former coordinator in Khuzdar, Balochistan.

The assassins “may perhaps belong to different groups,” said the HRCP, but the murders were “the work of militants out to eliminate anyone who raises his voice against persecution of the vulnerable people”. Naeem Sabir, associated with the HRCP since 1997, had been targeted off and on “by minions of the state” for his coverage of human rights abuses. A shadowy group calling itself the ‘Baloch Musala Defai Tanzeem’ (Armed Baloch Defence Committee) claimed responsibility.

Saba Dashtiyari was not exposing human rights abuses but he was doing something more dangerous – opening young minds to progressive thought. Although he received his basic education in the slums of Lyari he shared a wealth of knowledge, running “kind of a (liberal) university within the (strictly controlled) university,” writes his former student Malik Siraj Akbar. The disparate group of students around him often comprised “progressive and liberals”; they clutched books by “freethinkers like Bertrand Russell, Russian fiction by Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky,” and writings of Pakistani progressive intelletuals like the late Syed Sibte Hasan and Dr Mubarak Ali. Their discussions revolved around “politics, religion, revolutions, nationalism” and also included social taboos like sex and homosexuality. He contributed his salary “to impart cultural awareness and secular education”.

The state, on the other hand, is “constructing more and more religious schools to counter the liberal nationalist movement” which only accelerates the process of right-wing radicalisation (Obituary: The Martyred Professor, June 2, 2011, Baloch Hal).

Prof Dashtiyari had lately become “a staunch backer of the Baloch armed resistance for national liberation” (‘The Baloch Noam Chomsky Is Dead’, Baloch Hal, Jun 2, 2011). Although he himself had not taken up arms, his views were anathema to the ‘establishment’ as defined above.

In April last year, another professor at the University of Balochistan, Nazima Talib was murdered — the first time a woman was target-killed in the province. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) said it had killed her in response to the security forces’ killing of “two Baloch women in Quetta and Pasni and torture of women political workers in Mand and Tump”. Security forces routinely pick up Baloch youth for questioning. Far too often, mutilated bodies are found in what Amnesty International has termed as “kill and dump” operations. Since July 2010, the rights body has documented “the disappearances and killing of at least 100 activists, journalists, lawyers and teachers in Balochistan, with victims’ relatives often blaming the security and intelligence services”.

One can empathise with the anger of the Baloch. But revenge killings cannot be justified or condoned. When victims become oppressors, it becomes even harder to emerge from the downward spiral.

The murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti in Gen Musharraf’s military operation of August 2006 contributed to this downward spiral, sparking off a wave of target killings of non-Balochis, particularly educationists and civil servants. Those killed since include former education minister Shafique Ahmed and Hamid Mehmood, former secretary of the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education.

Although shadowy groups with long names sometimes claim responsibility, it is usually “unidentified assailants” who are said to be behind the murders, like those who gunned down former senator Habib Jalib of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal) last July.

Journalists remain vulnerable, walking a tightrope between the military and the militants, as Saleem Shahzad did. At least half-a-dozen Baloch journalists have been target-killed over the past nine months alone: Rehmatullah Shaeen, Ejaz Raisani, Lala Hameed Hayatan, Ilyas Nazar, Mohammad Khan Sasoil, Siddiq Eido and Abdus Rind. These murders have not been investigated, nor has the mainstream media taken any notice of them.

Many compare the situation to 1971. Just before Bangladesh’s liberation (albeit with foreign intervention), extremists trying to kill progressive ideas in the new country massacred progressive intellectuals. Is a similar mindset at work in what’s left of Pakistan? Extremists know they cannot win the argument so they silence the voices that make the argument.

Musharraf’s “moderate enlightenment” led to an escalation of violence against those who are genuinely enlightenment partisans from all shades of political opinion. This is not just a series of “incidents” but a tacitly agreed upon plan operating under a culture of impunity for both the state and the insurgents, fostered, it must be noted, by non-elected arms of the state. All demands for accountability, and for these acts to be tried and punished as criminal offences have so far come to naught.

There are signs of hope in the unprecedented number of people speaking out, in the Supreme Court’s seeking of the past three-year record of targeted killings in Balochistan, and in the Aghaz Huqooq-i-Balochistan (“the Beginning of Rights of Balochistan”) introduced by the government in November 2009. It is essential to build on these moves and urgently address Balochistan’s long-standing grievances about economic and political disenfranchisement, and human rights abuses.

As mentioned above, the genocide of Pakistan’s progressives is not limited to Balochistan. After educationist Latifullah Khan was murdered in Dir in November last year the Communist Party of Pakistan noted that since the start of the Taliban insurgency in Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, systematic elimination of the enlightened and educated people had been underway. Terming it ‘rampant ‘intellecticide’, the CPP urged the international community to take note as not a day passed without a university professor, chancellor, doctor, enlightened teacher or a progressive political worker being target-killed or kidnapped.

Saba Dashtiyari is the latest in a long line of such ‘enlightenment martyrs’ in Pakistan. They include those fighting the land mafia – like Nisar Baloch (of Gutter Bagheecha fame, Karachi), and the fisherfolk Haji Ghani and Abu Bakar who spearheaded a movement against the destruction of the mangrove forests along the coast.

Let this blood not have been spilt in vain.

The writer is a journalist working with the Jang Group

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  1. June 9th, 2011

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