Teach-in on Disappeared Activists in Pakistan

Posted by patwari on March 07, 2017 · 24 mins read

Disappeared: The word does not directly refer back to the person who's vanished, or at least, doesn't entirely capture her experience. The disappeared knows where she is during her disappearance, even as she knows that they are displaced. In the case of state-enforced disappearances, the state denies any knowledge of their whereabouts. Poof! Vanished! She's disappeared to others: loved ones, family, friends, and comrades. Her absence leaves behind a cavity, a question mark, and a world made incomplete in one blow.
I do not disappear to myself. I disappear to others. They notice that I am gone--or so I hope. I hope that they will respond to the cavity I left behind as I was violently extracted from amidst them, that they will raise hell, that I will be missed, remembered, that my memory will live on (if only for a while), that I will leave behind a trace, that I might die but it won't be a social death.

One of the words for 'disappeared' is ghayab: absent. Remembering and witnessing is an act of making present those who are made to be absent.


Given below are the remarks by three of the panelists at the teach-in on Pakistan's disappeared activists/bloggers (who have since been returned) that took place at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor on January 16, 2017. The teach-in was organized by South Asia Solidarity in Michigan (SASMi), and sponsored and hosted by the Center for South Asian Studies. At the teach-in, the panelists provided an overview of the specific cases of the five disappeared activists/bloggers. They addressed the broader trend of enforced disappearances of people in Pakistan and the victimization of political activists, placing the trend in a global context of repression of dissent. They discussed the history of state-civil society relations in Pakistan, and focused on what the disappearances and securitization of cyber-spaces meant for intellectual and political freedom in Pakistan and elsewhere. The teach-in ended with an open discussion of practical ways of furthering our solidarity politics in these troubled times across the globe.

Salman A Hussain

Between January 4 and 7, 2017 four bloggers and a Karachi-based activist have gone missing from Islamabad and Punjab.

Salman Haider is a poet, actor, playwright, and writer. Haider is a lecturer at the Department of Gender Studies at Fatimah Jinnah University in Rawalpindi. He is also an editor of the e-zine, Tanqeed, and an active member of Theatre Walley. Haider was returning home from a session with Theatre Walley when he went missing late on the night of January 6, 2016, from the outskirts of Islamabad.

Ahmed Waqas Goraya is a medical anthropologist and a resident of The Netherlands. Goraya is believed to be the admin of a progressive page critical of the military establishment in Pakistan. Goraya went missing from Lahore on January 4, 2016.

Aasim Saeed is an IT specialist and a resident of Singapore. Saeed is believed to be the admin of another progressive online page. He went missing on January 4, 2016, from Lahore.

Ahmed Naseer Raza is a shopkeeper. Raza is believed to be the admin of a secular page. He went missing on January 7, 2016, from Sheikhupura, Punjab.

Samar Abbas is a Karachi-based rights activist. Samar Abbas is the President of Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan. He went missing from Islamabad since January 7, 2016.

Since their disappearances, allegations of blasphemy have entered the fray. Some of the online pages and posts were characterized as blasphemous and alleged to be associated with the disappeared activist. These smears have legal teeth. There's talk of filing blasphemy cases against some of the missing activists. So, I will direct my remarks on this issue, and lay out a brief history of Pakistan's Blasphemy law.

Although one could start this history from an earlier point, I think that Pakistan's genocidal war to suppress Bengali liberation in 1971, and the declaration, in 1974, of Ahmadis as non-Muslim is vital to understanding Pakistan's Islamized present. Prior to 1974 the Ahmadiyya was simply another minority sect of Islam (though under attack and target of religious bigotry). This declaration though did not constitute the means with which the state could intervene in their religious practice. Then came the introduction of Ordinance 20 in 1984, criminalizing Ahmadi usage of Muslim terminology such as honorifics to refer to holy persons, calling their place of worship a masjid (mosque), and the call to prayer, azan. It also prohibited Ahmadis from some of the Muslim ritual practices such as the calling of the azan.

Next came Section 295-C, the blasphemy law, enacted in 1986 to criminalize the defiling of the Prophet's name. The ruckus over blasphemy is tied to this history of anti-ahmaddiyya offensive by the right through which the religious right has come to dominate the state, Sunnifying the state in the process. This law has been used primarily against minority communities—particularly, the Ahmadis, the Shia, and Christians—as well as members of the Sunni majority, and secular, liberal, and left voices.

I'd like to conclude with Ahsan Kamal's translation of a poem that Salman Haider wrote in July of 2016 when his friend was disappeared.

A Poem Off the Page...

Right now the friends of my friends are being disappeared
Soon it will be my friends' turn
And then mine
When I become the file
that my father will bring to court hearings
Or the picture that my son will kiss when told by a journalist
Or the silence that my wife will wear as jewellery
Or the murmurs of the prayers that my mother will utter before blowing softly on my picture
Or the number that will be used to call and summon me in prison
Or the sin that I never sinned
Or the confession that I had signed even before I was abducted
Or the sentence that was given even before I confessed
Or the punishment that is meted out evenly to me and my people
Or the law whose stench is nauseating to civilized noses
Or the commission that dabs the perfume of such laws before convening

Or the poem that the friends of my friends will write, tomorrow

Yes, I am a poem

A pictures is imprisoned on the page opposite mine,
With parted lips, one holding a blossoming kiss, the other drenched in hums of songs
A framed file beside it, and in the drawer next to it???
Sins, confessions, and punishments, perhaps
I cannot open that drawer
For I will have to leave this page to do so
And leaving a page of verse is a serious sin
As grave as helping books escape locked closets

Thank you.


Farina Mir
On Intellectual Freedom

I've been asked to speak about intellectual freedom in Pakistan in the context of the 5 people being disappeared for their views and online activism. Before I come to thinking about the situation in Pakistan, I wanted to be sure that we think of the situation there with some perspective on how seriously rights are imperiled in the US. We want to focus on understanding what's happening in Pakistan, surely, but we shouldn't do so without a sense that Pakistan is somewhere on a continuum of imperiled rights. And we [in the United States] are there, too.

I've just finished a 3 year term on the Council of the American Historical Association (AHA), so I'm perhaps a bit more aware of our precarity than I want to be. My term began with discussion of the University of Kansas's then newly adopted social media policy, which stated that faculty and other employees may be suspended, dismissed, or terminated from employment for “improper use of social media.” The AHA issued a statement of opposition to this. Later that year (2014), we issued a statement calling on The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to reinstate its offer of employment to Steven Salaita. If you didn't read that statement, you should. It had an important defense of the first amendment, and held up civility as a necessary attribute of free speech in a university community. Then, in 2015, there was a statement defending tenure and academic freedom in Wisconsin, and in 2016, a letter protesting persecution of Turkish scholars. I closed my term at the AHA by helping draft a statement that condemns efforts to intimidate scholars through the use of blacklists and watchlists, which identify specific individuals in ways that could lead to harassment and intimidation. And I returned from the AHA's annual meeting earlier this month to read about bills in Iowa and Missouri that are attempting to eliminate tenure in state institutions.

So, let's be sure that we understand that the issue of intellectual freedom is a global one. Having said that, I might also say that the situation in Pakistan is now acute, and the stakes are higher than I'd like them to me. More than jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance… But let me come back to that.

I wanted to share some anecdotal thoughts about intellectual freedom in Pakistan as one of the people at UM who has researched there. Those of you who know me know that I don't work on this question, per se. But from the end of 1996 to the beginning of 1999, I did doctoral fieldwork in Lahore, which provided some insights on this question. The first of these was a bit jarring to me: that is that while intellectual freedom here in the U.S. is so associated with the university (the idea that the university is the crucible of ideas, that it provides the foundations for our civil society), this wasn't the case in Pakistan. Bereft of the structures of public intellectual life usually found in a university setting during my affiliation with Punjab University, I was forced to seek out other sites of intellectual activity.

Pakistan is rich with intellectual activity—you all know this—but it emanates from smaller edifices—more often from homes rather than universities, from informal and often volunteer associations… And intellectuals have been trenchant critics of the state (for obvious reasons). In fact, the thing that struck me about my time in Pakistan, and my numerous visits in the almost 20 years since then, is how trenchant that criticism is, and how vocal the critics.

If we could think about the relationship between state and civil society—my time in Pakistan in the late '90s suggested an uneasy but well sedimented relationship that allowed such criticism to be voiced. Civil society, within limits, was allowed to thrive in its small edifices. Maybe that's because it had no teeth. The powers that be were so well entrenched that they weren't threatened. But I don't think that's it. It seems there was more tolerance for criticism, and more space for a range of views.

Of late, because of particularly jarring events such as those that bring us together tonight, it seems the situation is changing. In April 2015, for example, both Sabeen Mahmud and Professor Yasir Rizvi were shot dead.

There are more actors now—it's no longer a state-civil society equation. There are civil society actors, some with state aspirations, that are insistently circumscribing what civil society can be, can do, and say. The disappearance of these five activists leaves me deeply despondent. It points to fundamental changes in Pakistani society. The threat of death and/or disappearance will have more than a chilling effect on intellectual freedom. It may well thwart it entirely.


Zehra Hashmi
On Cyber Crime Act

In speaking about Pakistan's Electronic Cyber Crimes Act I would like to first, situate it within a broader context of expanding security measures in Pakistan — its not exceptional because its “cyber”. To do this, I will describe the bill's (now an act's) main features and the concerns these raised amongst specifically digital rights groups, and civil society at large, both before and after it was passed. Lastly, I want to ask some of the broader, for me unanswered, questions about the relationship between law, security and political expression in relation to these disappearances.

There are no direct causal links between the cyber crime law and the enforced disappearances of these writers and activists who had a pronounced social media presence. Rather, they are part of a common trajectory characterized by the increasing use of rhetoric around governmental security to repress political dissent. In particular, however, the cyber crime law points to an increasing need felt by the state to surveil and control digital spaces, and the document explicitly and self consciously expresses this.

The cyber crime bill was passed, amidst much controversy, on August 11th in 2016 — so fairly recently but it had clearly long been coming. The bulk of the bill details the punitive measures, including both imprisonment and hefty fines, for the protection of its “critical infrastructure information systems”. Critical infrastructure, in the language of the Act itself, means “critical elements of infrastructure namely assets, facilities, networks or processes the loss of which could result in loss of essential services, significant economic and social impact, and on national security and defense”. This is all quite specific, maybe even reasonable and intuitive regarding what would constitute a critical infrastructure. But then the Act points to the possibility an expansive, ever widening definition (kind of like some of the infrastructure studies stuff?), with “provided that the government may designate any private or government infrastructure as critical infrastructure as may be prescribed under this Act”. Even with this, these aspects of the Bill are those that align with the government's justification for its legislation, to combat cyber terrorism. The other major justification was that it protects individuals, particularly “Pakistan's daughters” from online harassment and stalking.

Its critics charged that Pakistan definitely needed some kind of legislation around cyber crimes, but it didn't have to take this form. Organizations such as Bytes for All, Bolo Bhi, and the Digital Rights Foundation campaigned against the Bill for over a year but failed to get much of it amended. For instance, as Digital Rights Foundation argued that it gave the Government broad powers to use technology, such as deep packet inspection, to monitor online content in breach of international standards on freedom of expression and privacy. This, they pointed out is in violation of the four special mandates held in the 2011 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression that “content filtering systems which are imposed by a government or commercial service provider and which are not end-user controlled are a form of prior censorship and are not justifiable as a restriction on freedom of expression”.
Apart from this concern about individual privacy, there have been objections from various quarters specifically around the language that criminalized the “glorification of an offence and hate speech” under section 9, where glorification is defined as “depiction of any form of praise or celebration in a desirable manner” — this is up to 7 years with Rs 10 million as a fine. Section 34, under the heading of “unlawful online content” deals with this problem of glorification directly in relation to Islam and the nation state of Pakistan — it uses the language of morality, decency, public order that these digital rights organizations objected to due to their vague and general nature. The Digital Rights Foundation, in their analysis of the bill, argued that some of the tangible effects of the vague language of the bill could include up to three years imprisonment for defaming the Prime Minister of Pakistan and simply not being able to start trends on Twitter to condemn the government or especially the security agencies, given the emphasis within the bill on issues of national security. Thus, this not only blocked freedom of speech, but in effect could criminalize some forms of it. Much of the analysis of the bill, within civil society as well as opposition party members such as the PPP called it the state's “oppressive instrument for the surveillance of youth and civil society”.
I do want to point out here that as draconian as this law is, censorship and surveillance are one thing and enforced disappearances are another. At the same time, the case of five disappeared social media activists — who are all linked to one another by the fact that they fostered critical discussion around the state and Islamist groups/Islamist state agenda online — raises the question of the connections between these. The cyber crime bill was understood and interpreted as a new crackdown and an attempt to gain control over an emerging digital space that political activists had made for themselves to hold “critical discussion” on certain subjects, that were otherwise mired in heavy censorship. The anonymity offered by alternative social media had led to dissipation of some fear that is palpable and plainly observable in mainstream Pakistani media — this had opened up previously untouchable topics to public scrutiny and participatory debate.

This is not to say by any means that social media is somehow an autonomous zone. But it does present some fundamentally different circumstances. The cyber crime law and these disappearances are both responses that should alert us to multiple and interconnected strategies to control cyber spaces. In fact, the news from today, that the five missing activists have a blasphemy charge levelled against them (while they are still missing) highlights the imbrication of these seemingly separate tactics — due legal process and brute repression. Since these allegations are clearly based on what was said online, it also shows that more technology, in the form of social media platforms, doesn't in and of itself mean more freedom. In this case, it also means more opportunities for not only censorship but the use of longstanding legal tactics of repression, such as the blasphemy law, to target anti-state perspectives. I hope we have a more open discussion of both how to think about these issues, but also what to do about these. In this vein, I want to suggest that we think about strategies across spaces, “real or virtual”.

The circumstances of one of the enforced disappearances brings forward why we have to think through these different kinds of security and surveillance altogether. Salman Haider was stopped at some point between 9 and 11pm in Islamabad, removed from his car and then taken towards Rawalpindi — Islamabad's sister city. Islamabad is now officially a smart city, which means it has over 2000 CCTV cameras equipped with facial recognition technology. The police claimed that it was because Haider's abductors drove towards Rawalpindi, which is unlike Islamabad not a “smart city, that they could not be tracked down. The paradox of this situation, the fact that surveillance fails some citizens and serves the state, is no surprise. But it doesn't mean that the ever-present question, that is, security for who, is not urgent or relevant to ask.



Saghir Shaikh | March 07, 2017

Thankyou for sharing. I am moved by South Asian to present the case of disappeared activists in Pakistan. But alas the case of missing hundreds of Sindhis and thousands of Balochs does seem to get adequate press or even a mentioning in such a forum? Why is so? I wonder? Because they do not belong to Urban areas where the affluent kids in US schools can identify themselves. It is pretty sad to witness this bias in thsi age where we all are so much connected through the social media.