My first encounter with Sabeen Mahmud was in her café at Defence Housing Authority Karachi. It was 2006 and my friend Roland D’Souza a civil rights activist known for his work with Shehri, a movement that works against illegal urban development, insisted we visit her library cum café. A group of young musicians was there revealing their talents. Later, these talented youngsters became famous on Coke Studio. Sabeen was ushering winds of change in a Pakistani society deprived of intellectualism and performing arts.

It was reminiscent of my days at Pakistan Tea House and YMCA Restaurant Lahore. Poets, writers, thinkers and progressives used to gather over a cup of tea and share ideas. Their ideas were mostly leftist and were nipped in bud long ago by military dictators. The void was filled by the rightists. Though the venue and name remains, the PTH is no more. The spirit of enlightenment faded away. Through the 60s-80s, intellectual discourse in Lahore died forever. It also reminded me of the cafes in Paris where intellectual discourses led to enlightenment, renaissance and the guillotine. Yet enlightenment and renaissance led to the explosion of knowledge, industrial revolution and advent of democracy. It was heartening to see Sabeen Mahmud reclaiming this intellectual space. For her, hope was not forlorn and she was leading the way.

In Karachi, faced with the fear of TT pistols, such a resurgence was a pleasant surprise. Despite a multi-dimensional conflict, there were people working towards peace, liberation of thought, human rights, performing arts, reading and the evolution of a plural society. Knowing the bigotry and high handedness that engulfs our society, I had made a parting comment, ‘How long will Sabeen survive?’ My fear emanated from my father’s tragedy whose head was beaten to a pulp for opposing Martial Law, and who died in 1960. Despite being branded anti state, his children grew up to serve Pakistan with distinction. To me the argument of a patriot and traitor is always hollow. I knew the dangers Sabeen was flying into.

Her trial after her tragic death in some segments of media is disheartening.  Sabeen Mahmud on no counts was unpatriotic. She was a staunch Pakistani who believed in the liberation of thought and discourse towards a peaceful society, a space ceded by the state to intolerance. Her vision was to transform Pakistan, changing state imposed bigotry to a discourse towards an egalitarian society. Anyone without a gun was welcome at her floor that echoed literature, poetry, discourses, debates and music. On the sides were neatly arranged books in shelves and reading tables. She was a pacifist.

Sabeen was no misguided liberal either. She was working towards revival of a culture that belonged to our society. Perhaps her educational years in Lahore, visits to YMCA, and research, had endeared her to the idea of a café exclusively for evolution of thought and performing arts. She was playing her role towards reviving a dream long abandoned. Her beat was familiar and dangers imminent. She was cognisant that dissent had moved beyond censorship to lead in copper. Who killed her and for what motives? These questions will spawn theories that would spin in whirlpools. But it is certain that she was not one funded by foreign NGOs, secessionist movements, anti-state elements and foreign agencies. Her most likely assassins are ones she challenged on a purely Pakistani turf.

Sabeen is not alone in this struggle. There were many before her put to the axe of misguided and notions.

The separation of East Pakistan was a foregone conclusion in 1906. Though Bengalis remained at the forefront of the Pakistan movement, the core leadership of the Punjab centred League deprived them of equitable leadership. The League’s main leadership neither grasped nor followed this basic premise of the partition of Bengal in 1905 till it got a Punjab centric twist in 1930. Similarly, the Lahore Resolution of 1940 was moved by Abdul Kasem Fazlul Huq (Sher-e-Bengal), the Chief Minister of undivided Bengal. Yet after partition, the Sher-e-Bengal was dismissed from public office by the Governor-General of Pakistan on charges of inciting secession. In politics, Pakistani style, heroes of yesterday become traitors of today.

Blacklisting Bengalis coincided with the suppression of progressive activists of Pakistan. In our formative years, we were overfed with the notion that Faiz Ahmad Faiz was a traitor. Yet the objective study of history reveals that he was a progressive patriotic Pakistani who played a key role in Kashmir’s war of independence. Similarly, Manto was labelled a pervert. Pakistan will become an egalitarian society only if it progresses from the thought of Allama Iqbal to Faiz, Habib Jalib, Munir Niazi and Fraz. Yet each one of these was an eyesore for the establishment. Salman Taseer the son of Dr. Taseer, who buried Alimuddin Ghazi, was murdered in broad daylight because he stood for the legal rights of a woman accused of blasphemy. There are others like Iqbal Masih, a young boy who spoke against child labour, Rashid Rehman, Parween Rahman and Shahbaz Bhatti who have been silenced for standing up for human dignity.  

In my reckoning, Sabeen was luckier. She survived nine years and had time to broaden discourse and establish T2F. Her popularity put her in the cross hairs of assassins. Her murder was high profile, made international headlines, resulted in many conspiracy theories and adds to the confusion. Detecting her murderers warrants tedious work. Most and least likely motives need to be investigated. The dynamics of internal strife and international cross currents cannot be ignored. Who benefits from this tragedy is a question that begs an answer.

One angle that investigators must probe is the statement by General Raheel Sharif on 16 April. He warned foreign intelligence agencies against trying to destabilise Pakistan by supporting terrorists in Balochistan and vowed to hit back. Perhaps someone decided to retaliate during the historic visit of the Chinese President on the pretext of unsilencing Balochistan.