In a recent spate of unexplained disappearances, at least eleven social media and other activists have suddenly gone missing in Pakistan. At this point neither any terrorist organization nor any state agency has claimed the responsibility. There are no ransom demands or any other announcements about these disappeared activists. I am only aware of the names of four of them: Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Ahmed Raza Naseer.
That these activists were all either progressive or openly critical of all forms of intolerance, hate, sectarianism, and fundamentalism is also a fact. Their disappearance, therefore, is not only a violation of their bodies and souls but a threat to the very future of public discourse in Pakistan.
Let us look at it reflectively. The most urgent threat to Pakistan in the current times is the rise of sectarianism, intolerance, and terrorism perpetuated by those who believe that only a simplistic way of defining Pakistan’s national identity is valid and laudable. All the state forces, government agencies, and the police forces combined have not been able to eliminate these material and ideological threats to Pakistan. Pakistan can only win this fight, in the long run, through the active participation of its youth and citizens. To eliminate the Taliban, for example, all Taliban-friendly thoughts must be slowly eliminated.
Activists like those disappeared serve a crucial function in this regard: they actively engage with the youth and help create and sustain a competing narrative of a tolerant, diverse, and democratic Pakistan. Their silencing, abduction, and incarceration, therefore, does not serve the Pakistani national interest, but rather strengthens the very forces that are threatening the ideological and material existence of Pakistan as a nation.
In the current climate of Pakistan, all dissenting voices are considered suspect and it takes a lot of courage to challenge the normative narratives so shamelessly proffered by powerful constituencies. It is important to have activists, scholars, and journalists who constantly ask the hard questions of power. Asking hard questions can never be considered unpatriotic! It is, therefore, shameful for people on various state-sponsored social network pages (Pakistan Defense Forum, for example) to exult in these disappearances. By rationalizing these disappearances, through their venomous and silly rhetoric, these people are empowering the kind of intolerance that it is the job of intelligence agencies, police forces, and the government to eliminate.
A few years ago when I had written a few critical articles about the generals of Pakistan army, I was invited to meet a senior official of the ISI. This official was a former superior of mine and an exceedingly professional officer and a decent human being. I went voluntarily and there was no coercion involved in the process. During our conversation, I was told that Taliban and their ilk were a new kind of enemy and that the armed forces believed that this fight could not only be won through military operations. I think the intelligence agencies still have the same view, for this fight needs every Pakistani citizen on the front lines to counter the venomous discourse that underwrites all pronouncements and actions of hate by Taliban and other hate groups. These activists, in my view, are the first line of ideological defense against the forces of intolerance and hate: they should be enabled to work freely and openly. They should be protected and not disappeared!
The current government has announced that these disappearances are illegal and that they will try their best to “recover” these activists. I hope that the government will live up to its own pronouncements, for the alternative is to have a population cowered in fear of not just those who threaten Pakistan but also of those whose job it is to protect us.
And for our protectors, where ever you are, we have a simple message: No army fights in a vacuum and all national armies rely on the sacrifices of its people to fight the material and ideological wars. The Pakistani people live in poverty, struggle every day, and have often sacrificed the future of their children to sustain their defense institutions. The Pakistani people deserve your love and respect, for in the end YOU are there to serve them and not vice versa.
We don’t need any more dictators; we have had enough of them already! We have had four illegal, unconstitutional regimes so far and all of them are responsible for the state Pakistan is in now. You cannot rule for thirty years and then blame the politicians for the ills of the nation! Yes, democracy is messy and our politicians are not all perfect: but they are responsible to the people and if the system continues, people will learn the habits of democracy and weed out the corrupt and the inefficient.
The activists who have been disappeared are doing a great service to the nation: they are practicing and perpetuating the habits and responsibilities of living in a democracy. They need to be respected, lauded and acknowledged for their service to the country, for they do this of their own free will and do not ask for anything in return.
Let there be open and free conversation about what do we mean by Pakistan and what are the rights and responsibilities of its people. So, in solidarity with these disappeared activists, let us all remember that only our silence will make such acts normal. We all, therefore, must speak and must continue being thorns in the heart of power, for power, as Deleuze famously said, must “totalize” and the role of the activists, the intellectuals, the journalists, and citizens is to constantly pose hard questions, to keep power from totalizing itself. For totalization is silence and death!