Salman Haider — a Pakistani poet, human rights activist, and academic — wrote an Urdu poem in July last year highlighting the disappearances of activists and his friends in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Ironically, he also predicted in his poem that he could soon face a similar fate. A translated excerpt from his poem reads:
Now friends of my friends are going missing,
Then it will be my friends, and then,
It will be my file [of me missing] that my father will take to the courts.
Unfortunately for Haider, his prediction came true when he was recently abducted in the outskirts of the country’s capital Islamabad. Soon after his abduction, which occurred around 10 p.m. on January 7, friends, family, and social media users started the hashtag #recoversalmanhaider on Twitter and Facebook. The hashtag soon gained attention, with the issue selectively taken up by the national media.
Pakistan’s implicit censorship code restrains TV news channels from directly blaming the security forces for such incidents, and thus Haider’s disappearance couldn’t get the coverage it deserved. Print and social media outlets, on the other hand, are still doing their best to keep the issue alive and maintain pressure on the security agencies for Haider’s recovery. Also, large groups of people have organized protests in various cities demanding Haider’s safe return.
Haider was known for raising an active voice against human rights violations and abductions in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. He was also serving on the board of editors for Tanqeed, a bilingual online Pakistani magazine. Tanqeed is one of the few alternate media sources in the country that highlights state and policy failures related to security and citizen’s rights. The magazine has also regularly criticized military operations and the situation in Balochistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas in the north.
Haider wasn’t the only one to have disappeared this month in Pakistan. Four other activists, namely Ahmed Raza Naseer, Samar Abbas, Asim Saeed, and Ahmed Waqas Goraya, were either abducted or went missing in the past week. All were also critical of the state’s policies and advocated for civil rights. Both Saeed and Goraya were known for managing Mochi, a famous anti-military Facebook page. These abductions (and disappearances) have startled a number of social media users and pages critical of the military, with many having deactivated their accounts.
This is not the first time left-leaning activists have either been targeted or abducted. Renowned journalist, author, and liberal activist Raza Rumi was attacked by a militant organization in March 2014 for being critical of the state’s policy of nurturing and protecting militants. Even though his driver died in the attack, Rumi managed to survive, and afterwards immigrated to the United States, fearing for his life. Rumi believes that the state, having already controlled the television news medium, is now going after the digital spaces and trying its best to suppress any dissent.
The attack on Rumi was followed by the death of Sabeen Mahmud, a 40-year-old female Pakistani activist, who was attacked in April 2014. On the day of her death, Mahmud was hosting a discussion on Balochistan’s missing persons and had invited Mama Qadeer, a famous Baloch activist, to take part in the panel. Qadeer, 70, was initially invited by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to speak at an event, titled ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’, on the alleged abduction and killing of the Baloch people. The event was ultimately cancelled by LUMS after stern pressure from the government. Soon after her own event, Mahmud, on her way home in her car, was surrounded by unknown armed assailants on motorbikes, who shot her three times, in the chest and neck.
Incidents involving attacks on liberal activists in Pakistan were rare in the 20th century, but are slowly becoming a norm in the 21st. Where Pakistan was supposed to move ahead, and consolidate its slow transition toward democracy and democratic norms, it’s instead going backwards by suffocating the space for limited voices of reason in the country.
Now, with a targeted campaign against outspoken activists, questions are being raised as to whether the state, along with the security agencies, is targeting the right people in its campaign against militancy. If people advocating for human rights and the recovery of missing persons are going missing themselves, it would seem that something is seriously wrong with the state and its policies.
Farooq Yousaf is a PhD Politics Candidate from Peshawar, Pakistan, currently pursuing studies in Australia. His research focuses on the role of indigenous conflict resolution methods in countering Insurgency in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Prior to his PhD studies, Yousaf completed his Masters in Public Policy, with concentration in Conflict Studies, from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany.