Of courage and humanity

Last month, I wrote a column about silencing dissent in Pakistan when an academic discussion on Balochistan was cancelled by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) allegedly at the behest of the government and intelligence agencies. It was a disappointment for many at the university as well as our civil society. Sabeen Mahmud, founder of the Karachi-based cafe The Second Floor (T2F) and a peace activist, decided to hold the same talk at T2F. Titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2)’, the seminar went well. Sabeen posted pictures of the seminar on her Instagram feed. Later that evening, as she left T2F, Sabeen was gunned down in her car. Her assassination was absolutely shocking and devastating.

Pakistani activists took to the streets last month to protest the killing of rights campaigner Sabeen Mahmud. On April 24, the 40-year-old was gunned down as she left the Karachi-based cafe, The Second Floor, minutes after hosting a seminar on the restive Balochistan province. Pic/AFP
Pakistani activists took to the streets last month to protest the killing of rights campaigner Sabeen Mahmud. On April 24, the 40-year-old was gunned down as she left the Karachi-based cafe, The Second Floor, minutes after hosting a seminar on the restive Balochistan province. Pic/AFP

Sabeen was a remarkable, honest, hard-working and genuine person. It was courageous of Sabeen to hold a seminar on missing persons and Baloch rights. She took up causes because she truly believed in them; she did not want fame, money or anything else. The night of her assassination, a friend said: “Sabeen believed in the place she lived in.” She believed that people must talk; they must debate and discuss issues, however sensitive they may be. Like Sabeen, there are many who still believe in the place we live in but her brutal assassination makes me wonder whether it is of any use. One by one, voices of dissent are being silenced. The space for liberal discourse is shrinking. Each attack on a human rights activist is a huge setback for progressive and liberal people of Pakistan.

When fingers were pointed at intelligence agencies following Sabeen’s murder, a campaign was launched against those who dared to question the state institutions. I A Rehman raises a valid point in his Dawn column (‘Who is killing the good ones?’): “The people have no interest in putting any innocent person or group or service in the dock. They will be satisfied if the government can find the culprits (and no dead bodies, please). So long as that does not happen the aggrieved citizens will be free to arrive at their own conclusions, however unfounded or unfair to some that might seem...It is certainly unjust to accuse any agency of wrongdoing without a reason. But if an agency is routinely blamed for everything that goes wrong in the country its leaders must ponder the reasons for such unenviable popularity.”

Yesterday was the first death anniversary of lawyer and human rights activist Rashid Rehman. He had received death threats for defending Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University accused of blasphemy. Rehman had officially lodged a complaint with the District Bar Association president after he was threatened by two lawyers and two other persons who asked him not to appear in the case. Rehman was shot dead at his office in Multan.

People like Sabeen Mahmud and Rashid Rehman give us courage but at the same time their assassinations make us lose faith in the system and, above all, humanity. Thus, one must laud the Karachi University (KU) faculty, especially Dr Riaz Ahmed, who went ahead with a seminar on Balochistan on May 6 despite the KU administration’s directive not to hold it. People like Dr Riaz and all those who attended the seminar restore some faith in humanity despite all that is happening around us. It is time to salute courage, for courage is now a rare commodity in the land of the pure.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist. Reach her at mehmal.s@gmail.com

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