The morning of April 24 started off fine for almost all of us: we got up, headed to work and waited for the clock to strike six so we could attend the highlight anticipated seminar “Unsilencing Baluchistan: Take 2” which was cancelled after alleged threats from the agencies. Little did we know what the night held for all of us. Merely 20 minutes after the session ended, Sabeen Mehmud, an activist who owned the venue, The Second Floor (T2F) was gunned down by unknown assailants.

It might be considered hyperbolic when I say that her murder sent out shock-waves throughout Karachi , a city otherwise known for its sheer resilience, but fear could indeed be sensed in the air. Those who attended the session and had heard the accounts of Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Muhammad Ali Talpur associated with the cause of Baloch missing persons, were still coming to terms with what had befallen them. Surely no Valentine’s Day campaign or Arrest Abdul Aziz had taken anyone six-feet-under.

Following her untimely demise people from different cities came out in the open to protest, but Karachi remained stunned. People did not utter anything for three days. But silencing Karachi isn’t that easy. People were soon organising a similar seminar at the biggest varsity in the province, University of Karachi .

Now if the consequences of Take 2 at T2F were so nerve-wracking, the possibility of having a session at KU was hanging in the balance. The organiser of the program, Riaz Ahmed, representing Teachers Against War and Oppression, however was adamant about holding the session and believed it to be the torch passed on by Sabeen to each and every one of us, not because she was solely working for the Baloch cause, but because she chose to give them room to speak where all other doors were shut. Sabeen believed in talking everything out, she was one person who would be coming up with a solution instead of harping about the issue in hand and yes she died because she didn’t believe in silencing.   

Anyone who thought that “Baloch missing persons and Role of State and Society” ‘used’ Sabeen for their own gain can only be pitied. For, if this was the case, the session would have never transformed into a protest then and there. Till the last moment, there was news regarding the cancellation of the seminar. But how can you seal lips of more than a hundred who showed up? By stopping them at the gates of the institute otherwise open to anyone?

Yes the doors of Arts Auditorium were shut, despite the large crowd, the administration refused to give the space even when it was clearly told that there was no pressure from the government or any agencies. It was solely the institution’s own stubbornness which created hurdles in an otherwise smooth event. But none could be deterred and the organiser Riaz Ahmed stood on the sole bench in the Arts Lobby and addressed the crowd of people from all groups, congratulating them for their spirit.

“We are not here to mourn Sabeen, we are here to celebrate the cause, we are here to laud all those who are sacrificing their lives for truth.”

After a round of applause the teacher, who is from the Chemistry department, asked all the attendees to offer prayers for Sabeen and the university’s slain teacher Wahidur Rehman, known by the name of Yasir Rizvi.

Although notable speakers like Economist Dr. S. Akber Zaidi from IBA, Secretary Sindh University Teachers Association Dr. Arfana Mallah, author and journalist Muhamamd Hanif, and Women Action Forum’s Nazish Brohi were invited to discuss the issue, their absence didn’t stop the organisers from calling off the program.

The panelists could obviously not attend because it hadn’t remained a seminar. And sitting on floor, without any system, the meet-up depended on a few young people who took up the responsibility to hang the banners, distribute water bottles and assemble the crowd.

But there is one thing which KU did which none could: it welcomed Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Muhammad Ali Talpur by showering petals upon them. Given that two of them are the apples of discord, such a warm welcome showed that there was still some hope.

After this gesture, the guests were asked to light candles for Sabeen whose picture was loosely hung on the rugged wall of the lobby, held by two attendees. Riaz Ahmed had already told the audience not to raise slogans and to remain peaceful. He himself admitted that although he didn’t support the idea of a separate province out of his love for Baloch, he strongly believed that they should be given a voice to tell the world about what ails them. He also strictly said that there will not be any quid-pro-quid like there was one at T2F because it was no longer a session.

Although shortened, Mama Qadeer narrated his speech and spoke about the persecution of the Baloch at the hands of multiple governments since 1948 till date. The aged man took one name after the other and he never blamed anyone in particular, just mentioned those in power over the course of history. However, as soon as he ended his account, three young men, who said they were also from the same region stood up to ask questions. Though they thankfully remained silent after that, the constant fidgeting made many nervous.

Muhammad Ali Talpur however perhaps would have answered some of their queries when he was asked to speak. Whenever the Balochistan question is brought up the first answer to be thrown is ‘‘the reports of the missing persons are greatly exaggerated”—this time Talpur had a very plain but hard-hitting response to this hyperbolic statement:

“I ask the authorities, even if one person is missing, my question remains: why? How can a person be taken away, tortured and thrown on the streets?”

It was a surprise for the attendees when Talpur reminisced his days at University of Karachi during ’69 and ’70 when he was pursuing journalism and would not refrain from protesting against rigged elections. Ending his speech with an impassioned poem, he remained firm that one has to rise against oppression because after all there is a limit to everything and no wonder; six decades indeed break all limits.

After Farzana Majeed’s short but poignant speech about her missing brother, the participants were requested to protest silently in front of the Administration Block for their stance against freedom of speech. But it couldn’t be done without those same young men throwing questions at the guests. Before things could get heated up, they were safely led out with news in the air about some fronts blaming the organisers for conducting ‘anti-state’ talks.

If speaking for justice is anti-state then so be it. In a place like Karachi University which has a rich history with activism, it is imprudent to silence those who speak for equal rights for all. Just a few feet away from the place where the event was conducted, stands a bench erected for the MQM leader Altaf Hussain. This was the place where the biggest political party of Karachi was born. Expecting that the land will not allow anyone else to speak for justice is a myth, which was indeed shattered when all assembled to hear the plight of the Baloch.

We have lost many in this struggle for truth and we might lose more. But for anyone who tries to smother truth, the dying scream always ends with an echoing boom and this is exactly what the killers of activists have done: they have unleashed the power of truth to be heard and understood.