End forced disappearances now!

So, the United States will no longer be providing Pakistan with military aid. For the past week, in response to a tweet by an American president who, if Michael Wolff’s account in Fire and Fury is to be believed, is utterly unsuited to the office he occupies, the airwaves have been saturated with rebuttals, condemnations, and dismissals by officials and various talking heads who have taken umbrage at the accusations that have been made against Pakistan.

All of this seems terribly important, and perhaps it is, but it is difficult to focus on such grand questions of seemingly global import when such blatant injustice and cruelty continues to be perpetrated much closer to home. In what has become a chillingly routine occurrence, two students at Karachi University, Mumtaz and Kamran Sajidi, were allegedly picked up by unknown government agencies and have simply disappeared like so many hundreds before them. Once again, no information has been given to explain or justify this abduction, although speculation on the matter suggests that the two brothers may be being punished for their involvement in activism seeking the release of another ‘disappeared’ student, Sagheer Baloch. If the experiences of the ‘lucky’ few who disappeared and were subsequently returned are anything to go by, Mumtaz and Kamran are likely to be ruthlessly interrogated and possibly tortured during their forced imprisonment.

Is it too much to ask that the citizens of this country be protected from the arbitrary exercise of power by the state? Is it unreasonable to expect that people be allowed to peacefully express their opinions and beliefs without fear of persecution at the hands of the self-appointed custodians of the national interest? Should there be genuine cause for concern or suspicion regarding the activities of individuals involved in protest and dissent, is it not possible to deal with the matter in accordance with the law and have the accused be presented before a court of law where their guilt, or lack of it, can be properly ascertained? What is possibly accomplished by ruining the lives of innocent young men and women who only sought to exercise their democratic right to protest? Can it really be argued that these people constitute a massive risk to the security of one of the most militarised countries in the world?

Forced disappearances and torture are not the hallmarks of stable, secure, or civilised state. They are indicative of a blatant disregard for the rule of law and utter indifference towards the liberties and safety of the people. Tactics of this kind, designed to frighten, intimidate, and ultimately silence those who question the powers-that-be, are deployed not only because of the lack of accountability and transparency that allow the latter to act with impunity, but also because of the ultimately dysfunctional nature of the institutions – judicial, law enforcement, and parliamentary – that might otherwise be expected to deal with alleged violations of the law and, much more importantly, act to defend the rights of those who dare to stand up to and criticise the government and its policies. Indeed, it may not be too farfetched to suggest that undermining these institutions, and impeding their development and consolidation through the strengthening of democratic rule and norms, is something that is actively pursued as a matter of policy by those military and civilian elites who continue to benefit from the absence of any meaningful mechanisms through which their power can be constrained.

For all their posturing and rhetoric, whether it is when responding to the bluster of Donald Trump or trading barbs with India, the self-proclaimed architects of Pakistan’s future stand utterly exposed; isolated internationally, viewed as a pariah state by the global community, always dependent on foreign patrons for day-to-day survival, beset with unrest and instability of both external and internal origin, held hostage by millinerian zealots on a routine basis and, most damningly of all, seemingly forever at war with its own citizens, Pakistan stands on the brink of utter failure, a salutary example of what happens when muddled strategic thinking is lauded as genius and self-destructive policies are celebrated as being visionary. Whatever the state might want to believe, the fact of the matter is that Pakistan is both unstable and insecure, and cracking down on peaceful activists does nothing to address the systemic problems that continue to drag the country down.

While it may be cliched to suggest that power corrupts, this adage nonetheless perfectly captures the current state of affairs in Pakistan. For corruption does not just imply financial wrongdoing; it also refers to the inevitable mental degeneration that occurs when those in charge mistake their power for the ability to reshape reality as they deem fit. The toxic combination of paranoia and ruthlessness that characterises the conduct of the deep state is only worsened by the belief that the course of action it pursues is always correct, which in turn makes it even harder to engage in the sort of introspection and reflection needed for structural reform of the kind that will be required to build a more peaceful and prosperous Pakistan. Before they go around rounding up and punishing young men and women whose only crime is asking questions and deviating from the failed script parroted by the establishment, the powers-that-be would do well to ask how they themselves have contributed to Pakistan’s malaise.

Mumtaz and Kamran Sajidi, Raza Khan, and all the other hundreds of people who have gone missing over the past decade must be returned to their homes. If there are any allegations against them, they must be evaluated in a court of law and if there are not, or if those who have been missing have been mistreated, those responsible for their forced incarceration must be held accountable. To do otherwise would be to leave an indelible stain on this country’s conscience, one that will never be erased and for which posterity will judge us harshly.

 

n            The writer is an assistant professor

of political science at LUMS.

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