This past week witnessed frenzied speculation and frenetic activity around the Senate elections and the launch of different ranges of designer lawn across the country. Scenes of strife and discord in the national and provincial assemblies, with rival legislators and party leaders accusing each other of electoral malpractice, were matched by displays of unbridled aggression and mob violence at fashion and retail outlets on the streets of Pakistan’s major metropolises. If events in the Senate were evidence of democracy red in tooth and claw for all the wrong reasons, the scenes witnessed at the lawn launches were surely an expression of consumer capitalism sans its veneer of quotidian civility; politics and shopping both stood exposed as cynical, opportunistic bloodsports fuelled by money, ego, and competition.

Amidst the rolling coverage of the Senate elections, dissected, examined, and analyzed ad nauseum by all the major media outlets, and the breathless anticipation that preceded the start of the lawn season, one could be forgiven for not noticing a small but significant event that once again illustrated how the state in Pakistan can be relied upon to fight the wrong battles and target the wrong people. As he was preparing to depart for the United States in order to attend a conference, Mama Qadeer, the Baloch human rights activist who has perhaps done more than anyone else to highlight the plight of the thousands of missing people in Balochistan, was prevented from leaving the country, with officials at Karachi airport informing him that he and his companions had been placed on the Exit Control List for engaging in ‘anti-state’ activities.

Barely six months after using draconian anti-terror laws to arrest Baba Jan, an activist from Gilgit-Baltistan who had been leading peaceful protests against the government’s indifference towards people affected by the foods of 2010, it is clear that the political and military establishment feels no compunction in using the ‘anti-state’ label to demonize all those who challenge the dominant, state-sponsored narratives about national security, center-province relations, and economic development. Indeed, the state has continued to make use of the coercive power at its disposal to systematically target and silence men and women whose only ‘crime’ has been to ask questions that must be answered. After all, it is not wrong to expect the government to discharge its responsibilities towards vulnerable citizens ravaged by natural disasters. Similarly, in a province where an estimated 1500 people have been killed and a further 18,000 are still missing (according to the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons), and where the writ of the state has been imposed through the untrammelled deployment of secretive security forces with virtually unrestrained power, is it not imperative that the government be made to account for its actions, and that those responsible for these heinous crimes be brought to justice?

In Balochistan, an ethno-national movement borne out of economic marginalization and exploitation, itself a product of the centralization of power in the hands of a predominantly Punjabi establishment, has repeatedly been treated as a violent and dangerous insurgency that represents a fundamental threat to Pakistan. Rather than addressing genuine grievances that can only be resolved through a recalibration of center-province relations, the state has historically responded with force, ruthlessly suppressing opposition in an attempt to defend the same status quo that fuelled the struggle for Bangladeshi independence. With so many natural resources left to pillage and, more recently, so many billions of dollars of Chinese investment at stake, it is not difficult to see why those at the helm of the establishment are so eager and willing to use military might in order to secure their interests in Balochistan; that this approach could make things worse, and generate a more combative response, should be equally unsurprising.

The state’s hypocrisy in these matters is self-evident. Even as it invokes arguments about ‘national security’ to justify continued repression in Balochistan, it persists in tolerating the bigotry and violence of its ‘strategic assets’, with sectarian militants and groups continuing to thrive despite lofty claims about changed narratives and priorities. While people like Mama Qadeer and Baba Jan are imprisoned and punished for speaking out, the leaders of ‘banned’ organizations hold public rallies, secure in the knowledge that they can go about their business unimpeded and unmolested. Peaceful activists demanding justice for their loved ones are met with the bullet and the baton, while killers and murderers are garlanded and feted for their services to charity, Islam, and Pakistan.

The same logic applies to the shenanigans that characterized the Senate elections. That the existing mechanism for electing senators leaves itself wide open to manipulation, bribery, and rigging should be obvious, with the blatant demonstration of this fact during the proceedings last week simply confirming something everyone already knows. With eye-watering sums allegedly being offered by candidates and parties in exchange for votes from legislators in all four provinces (with this, in turn, leading to questions about how people would generate returns on this ‘investment’ once ensconced in the Senate), it takes a considerable amount of chutzpah to unrepentantly claim that this was all somehow a victory for democracy. The system needs time to reform, and transitioning to substantive democracy will be a long and arduous process, but it is nonetheless difficult to reconcile images of gloating politicians disembarking from expensive vehicles with the news that people fighting for the things that really matter have once again been brutally rewarded for their troubles. One might be tempted to argue that buying an election is a greater threat to the state than highlighting human rights abuses, but that would be a view that would find little traction in the corridors of power.

So there we have it. The military’s use of force in Balochistan continues unabated, religious extremists continue to do as they please, and the country’s politicians continue to pioneer new and creative ways through which to milk their positions for all they are worth. Perhaps most importantly of all, the fashion industry has ensured that people wanting to assert their status and individuality by donning the latest ‘designer’ prints can do so by engaging in a race to acquire the same mass-produced clothes that everyone else will be chasing after and wearing. Amidst all this brutality, cynicism, and vacuity, the plight of people like Mama Qadeer, and the millions they represent, will remain ignored.