There is a growing sense of insecurity and alarm among the civil society as the enforced disappearance of activists enters another week. This climate of uncertainty is starting to affect the public now, which has come out to protest, it is calling civil societies into action, galvanising political parties and drawing attention from all international observers and players. Soon this uncertainty will harden into resolve and resentment, and the state will have itself to blame.

The powers-that-be seem to be trying too hard to maintain their positive image, or perhaps they are actively try to inculcate a severe and frightening one from time to time. Threats to free speech, and a lack of answers never result in anything positive for state institution, except fear and loathing from people and eventual revolt.

In the last eight years, it has taken the establishment painstaking effort and a series of well thought out decisions to win back the public’s unwavering support. It is easy to see how it did that. It targeted the religious militancy head on and without giving any quarter, it refrained from inserting itself in civilian matters, even where the opportunity presented itself, and allowed the media to act freely without censor. The praise from home and abroad was unequivocal, and General Raheel Sharif became one of the most popular men in the country as a result.

But popularity isn’t unconditional, and the abduction of these activists has bought back the spectres of a totalitarian past. Overnight the mood has changed, and a country that was beginning to get used to a hard-won democratic space where free speech and open discussion could guide issues is now pegged back – not by religious fanatics or dictatorships, but by state institutions themselves – whether through their complicity or silence.

While it is true that officially no one knows who abducted these men, the silence of the government has forced the public to connect the dots. Common perception is that these activists criticised the military and raised a voice against the enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Online forums that usually present the military’s viewpoint have suddenly sprung into action against these men.

The fact is that whatever these men were writing, or protesting, it was peaceful and none of them had yet committed a crime. We can disagree with their perspectives but we cannot deny their right to hold them. Anyone who argues that these men deserve to disappear for criticising the army or the state is giving currency to a very cruel idea that people should be kidnapped or killed if they hold “unacceptable” views. We also cannot deny that the state has failed these men, their families, and anyone who may ever voice dissent in Pakistan. A target has been painted on all of our foreheads, lest we ever offend the powerful.