What missing bloggers tell about Pakistan?



The mysterious disappearance of Salman Haider and his return was a big news in Pakistan. Haider, a poet and academic who has been a vocal opponent of religious extremism and the Pakistani authorities’ abuse of opposition activists, had been reported missing from Islamabad on January 8. His disappearance led to an online campaign for his safe return. At least five bloggers and activists reportedly disappeared in the country and Haider was the best known among them. The others who have vanished were critical of organised religion, the influence of clerics in Pakistan and the country’s powerful military on social media. Ismail Kareem explores the bloggers world in Pakistan

Army cadets march during an event to mark the 140th birth anniversary of Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah in south Pakistan’s Karachi, Dec. 25, 2016. (Xinhua/Arshad) (zcc)

It is not known which part of the state is involved in the abduction and detention of these men, some of whom have been campaigning against state’s repressive measures on social media. The episode of the missing bloggers has exposed the real face of Pakistan like rarely has any event done in the recent past; except perhaps the brutal assassination of the then Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, at the hands of his own zealot security detail. The absence of outrage at the killing and the canonization of the killer by a large section of the society showed a face which Pakistanis otherwise would go out of their way to hide.

In this case also, what emerges is not a pleasant sight. Although two bloggers, who went missing a few weeks ago, have returned home, but with the whereabouts of the other three still unknown, the squabbling and silence over the episode has been damning.

It is not known which part of the state is involved in the abduction and detention of these men, some of whom have been campaigning against state’s repressive measures on social media. In Pakistan, even on normal times, it is impossible to make a distinction between the `bad guys` and the `good guys` in the state apparatus. At the superficial level, the distinction perhaps is visible—the civilian and the military, the latter being the villainous element. But this is where the distinctions disappear—even within the military, distinctions are sought to be made between the not-so-bad guys and `ok` guys.

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Salman Haider

The reality is that there is no such distinction but the great myth making machine of Rawalpindi has succefully managed to convince the people of Pakistan as well as the world that not every one in the military is a `bad` guy. It is the ISI!. But then, isn’t the ISI an integral part of Pakistan Army? The myth says there are `rogue` elements within ISI who are doing the `dirty` work, like helping terrorists, terrorizing local people, making citizens disappear and shooting at journalists. But then why doesn’t the army purge these `rogue` elements? No one asks this question, and no one answers it either, except perhaps with a bullet or sudden disappearance. So a convenient term was found to describe this phenomenon, the Deep State.

The civilian establishment, likewise, has multiple dimensions—there are of course handful of right thinking individuals in the establishment but they are so few and far between that they are invisible and do not really matter. Rest are part of the Deep State, seemingly opposed to the military but united in the joint cause of keeping the people of Pakistan ignorant and subjugated. For instance, in inflicting gross indignities and violence on the people of Balochistan, or on the minorities, both halves of the state work like a team, one remaining silent and another making misleading noises.

This is exactly what you are witnessing in the case of the missing bloggers. The military is not surprisingly silent. This silence is telling. Every time a journalist is shot or goes missing, or a political activist is shot by anonymous bikers, no twitter comes from the great Pakistan Army which boasts itself as the savior of the people of Pakistan. The response from the civilian establishment is equally baffling—instead of making all efforts to trace the bloggers, the leaders have been talking in forked tongues.

The most insidious of the state’s response has been to spread the word that the bloggers were guilty of blasphemy. This is a serious charge to make in a country where the punishment,if found guilty, could be death.  Even if the bloggers had violated the law, the state has the means to prosecute them legally through the judicial system. To abduct them is clearly an extrajudicial measure which the state cannot justify by citing violation of a law which in itself is one of the most retrogressive in the civilized world. The minorities live in constant fear of being accused of blasphemy by extremist elements.

In this case also, the extremist elements and their supporters have been going out into the streets demanding punishment to the bloggers for blasphemy. In Punjab University, one student was beaten up by members of a right wing group for posting a statement in support of one of the missing bloggers. These groups have the tacit support of the state. What has been more distressing is the support these elements enjoy from the civil society. Like in the case of Salman Taseer killing, the civil society is sharply divided, with the so-called liberals choosing to remain in silence. An English daily, The Express Tribune (January 21, 2017), aptly summed up the situation in its editorial–“Sad as it is we announce the death of outrage in Pakistan… Outrage, as in large sections of the population expressing shock, anger and indignation has been killed by fear — the fear of what might happen to them if that shock outrage and indignation ever surfaced publicly.“

The editorial dismissed the assurances of Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan about taking prompt action to release the bloggers by calling his statement “the crocodile tears “. The newspaper said such statements will only “ fool and satisfy many, particularly those that seek to drag the state ever further to the right and closer to a poisonous intolerance in thought, word and deed. They are powerful and have fellow-travelers deep within State apparatus. “

The missing bloggers case, has once again, showed how the state, and people in majority, are transforming Pakistan into an ugly, regressive country where liberal voices and minorities have no place to thrive.