In December, the government’s Commission on Enforced Disappearances reported that the bodies of 936 missing persons had been found in Balochistan province alone since 2011. In January 2015, the spectre of such abductions came to Punjab, as five rights and religious freedom activists went missing. Today, it is heartening to know that five more will not be added to the above quoted number with news of three of the five activists being alive and safe. The sudden return is mysterious, leading to more questions about the disappearances: Who was behind them? What led to the return? Where were the men? Why were they picked up? Questions no one has volunteered an answer to, nor will they.

While there was a vicious social media campaign against these activists, those in Pakistan who believe in tolerance, the peaceful right to protest and free speech had been protesting daily in major cities. It may have been this constant pressure that led to the return of the activists. There are those who still argue that there must have been a reason for the abductions, that these activists were troublemakers. The fact is that who or what these activists were criticising broke no laws, and if they did, their abduction was not the answer, prosecution was.

We have seen large sections of our society speak up to protect murderers like Mumtaz Qadri, and become apologists for militant religious groups who have time and again attacked the civilian population. Extra-judicial violence seems to be an accepted norm, as long as one agrees with the violent mindset. Thus, while these activists may be free from being accused of a crime by the state, their trial by society is not over yet, and thus their safety will always be an issue.

If we have learnt anything from this saga, it is that rule of law, to be followed by citizens as well as the state, has to be the only way of governance, rather than deference to selective moral codes. While the disappearances were applauded by some extremist sections of society, the hate was met with rational arguments for free speech and constitutional rights. Force on the part of any section of society, political party, or state institution will be met with resistance in today’s Pakistan. If the state wants to make sure that the people of Pakistan do not erupt in violent clashes, it has to make sure it projects one vision of what is “moral” and acceptable in society. That vision is written in the Pakistani constitution, and nowhere else.