Who is killing dissent and diversity in Pakistan?

Weekly Pakistan Media Watch

The spate of targeted attacks on high profile academics and a peace activist jolted Pakistan out of lofty dreams of $46 billions neatly spread in a colorful corridor. Ridiculing the claims by civil and military establishment about ongoing operation against target killers and terrorists, the murders created a thick wave of gloom, despair, anger and sarcasm that engulfed Pakistani media. An impassioned debate on the notions of patriotism, constitutional guarantees, individual conscience and state security paradigm surfaced.

  • (c) Alifiyah Imani Sabeen Mehmud and her mother Mahenaz (c) Alifiyah Imani

Many editorials, columns, opinion pieces and blogs raised questions about the limits of right to speak in Pakistan. Is Pakistan a paranoid security state? Is Pakistani democracy merely a structure or a soulful system based on humanist values? Are strategic interests holier than individual freedoms?

Why can’t we control sectarian terrorists who roam around freely after killing hundreds of Shias, minority citizens and civil society activists? Where is National Action Plan against terrorism that reflected nation’s resolve against terrorism after Peshawar school attack? Can Pakistan survive and grow without allowing free dialogue? Is cultural, religious and intellectual diversity compatible with strategic interests?

The debate turned into a deep soul searching from all the points of views in Pakistan.

According to media reports, vice principal for student’s affairs at Karachi Medical and Dental College and a professor of community medicine, Debra Lobo settled in Pakistan after marrying a Pakistani professional in 1998. She was chased and shot on April 16. An unknown militant organization, The Lions of Islamic State, accepted the responsibility.

A pamphlet in English and Arabic found at the crime scene announced that it was a revenge of the recent killing of five militants in an ‘encounter’. The pamphlet carried the threat that they will chase and kill ‘crusaders’ everywhere in the world. Luckily survived, she was attacked for just being an American.

‘If the vast and varied buffet of hate filled extremism were not enough, this latest horror points to a local germination of a foreign evil’

‘If the vast and varied buffet of hate filled extremism were not enough, this latest horror points to a local germination of a foreign evil’, wrote Dawn columnist, Rafia Zakria on April 17.  

Few days later, unknown assailants chased and killed prominent peace activist, Sabeen Mehmud on April 24. She was riding back to her home, with her mother and driver, after successfully conducting a dialogue titled Unsilencing Balochistan-Take 2. The seminar invited Baloch activists to present their case on missing persons. This was a courageous and rather rebellious decision as ‘security establishment’ had ‘advised’ the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) to cancel this seminar, a few weeks later.

None of the extremist organizations accepted the responsibility. Rather, as published in Express Tribune on April 26, the banned Tahreek e Taliban Pakistan spokesperson, Mohammad Khurrasani categorically denied any involvement. The Pakistan army spokesperson, General Asim Bajwa, while strongly condemning the murder, announced that intelligence agencies shall help provincial police in investigating the crime.  

A few days later, on April 28, assistant professor of Karachi University, Syed Wahid ur Rehman was shot dead in the similar pattern. Like Debra Lobo and Sabeen Mehmud, he was chased and attacked while riding back home. He also received 5 bullets.

Though not a Shia by faith, he chose to be called Yasir Rizvi, a typical Shia name. He was a pupil and close confident of outspoken, Dean of Islamic Studies, Dr. Shakeel Auj who was killed last year by sectarian target killers. According to The News (April 29), he was helping the agrieved family of Dr. Shakeel Auj in seeking justice.

The Dawn editorial on May 1st wrote, ‘Two weeks ago, American academic Debra Lobo was attacked reportedly by religious militants but luckily survived the ambush, while police official Aijaz Khawaja was killed in a targeted attack. Last Friday saw the slaying of activist Sabeen Mahmud while Dr Rehman’s murder is the latest in this grim series. The academic’s slaying on Wednesday brings to five the total number of university teachers killed in the metropolis in two years’.

Sabeen Mehmud of Pakistan: Pakistan of Sabeen Mehmud

She was an icon of courage and commitment. She symbolized faith in progressive ideals of Pakistan. She preached hope and faith in an individual’s capacity to bring change. A staunch believer of right to speak, freedom of religion and cultural diversity, she was instrumental in revitalizing the arts and culture of Karachi.

She founded Peace Niche in 2007 that ran an open dialogue project, The Second Floor (T2F) comprising of a cafe, an old books collection and a small hall open for discussions, dialogues, poetry sessions, art exhibitions, music, theatre and dance performances, film screenings, lectures and book launching ceremonies.

The T2F assembled everybody across age, gender and genre. Within few years, she hosted thousands of events and became essential in socio-cultural and art circles. She co-founded Karachi Music Festival and Citizen’s Archives of Pakistan. She launched campaigns such as Pakistan For All and Reclaim Your Mosques.

She challenged TTP by making a human chain outside Peshawar church attacked by terrorists. She reached in the Karachi area threatened by sectarian tension to console and convince the fellow Karachites. She demonstrated in front of Lal Mosque against Maulana Aziz after Peshawar school attacks.

Her Valentine’s Day campaign, ‘Dont keep distance, let love be’ irked religious conservatives to the extent that she was labeled as blasphemer.

Unsilencing Balochistan-Take 2 

Mehmud was extremely worried but she was confident as well. A blogger at Express Tribune published her tweet as saying, ‘Thus far, we have no threats. We have to stand together and face what may come our way. My logic tells that ‘establishment’ shall not come guns ablazing’. While welcoming the participants at the fateful day, she happily announced that she had received no threats from anywhere.

Trascribed and published by online Urdu magazine, Tanqeed, the seventy years old Baloch activist, vice president of Voice of Missing Balochis, Mama Qadeer delivered a finely written speech in Urdu. It was a different narrative than mainstream Balochis represented by Balochistan parliament lead by great Baloch leader, Mohammad Malik. He talked about 21,000 missing and 6,000 killed Balochis. He narrated the story of his long march from Quetta to Islamabad and how he was welcomed by the people of Sindh and South Punjab.  

The assassination of Sabeen Mahmud is a desperate, tragic confirmation that Pakistan’s long slide towards intolerance and violence is continuing, and even quickening.

A panelist in the event, prominent journalist, Wussat Ullah Khan of BBC Urdu wrote on April 25, ‘nobody said anything, which had not been said or published before. It was about missing persons, long march from Quetta to Islamabad, historic background of Balochistan crisis, federal policies towards Balochistan, extremism, silence of media, nature of operation, seperatist attacks on migrants, possible solution to the Balochistan crisis, powerlessness of provincial government, foreign investment etc’.

He told that Sabeen was extremely happy before leaving T2F, fifteen minutes before her murder.

The Dawn editorial on April 26, wrote, ‘The assassination of Sabeen Mahmud is a desperate, tragic confirmation that Pakistan’s long slide towards intolerance and violence is continuing, and even quickening. But clearly, in the tumultuous city of Karachi and given the variety of causes Ms Mahmud championed, the security agencies are not the only ones perceived as suspects in her assassination. Ms Mahmud’s work had attracted criticism and threats in the past, particularly from sections of the religious right, which viewed her promotion of the arts, music and culture with great hostility’.

The editorial lamented the fact that state seemed to have all but surrendered to the forces of darkness. ‘The free speech, robust debate, academic inquiry, the promotion of individual rights — anything that promotes a healthy, inclusive and vibrant society is seemingly under attack’ concluded the editorial.

When intolerance or fanaticism of any kind quashes the voices of people who speak out for others, an even more dangerous state of affairs is created

According to Express Tribune editorial on the same day, ‘to be liberal and outspoken in Pakistan of today is tantamount to painting a target in the middle of your forehead. Sabeen Mehmud was one of those who rose above the crowd’.

Similarly, The News editorial said, ‘the brutal killing of Sabeen Mehmud delivers a clear message that can only add to the fear that runs through our society and reminds us that dissent could mean death. The situation we have created in our country is an untenable one. When intolerance or fanaticism of any kind quashes the voices of people who speak out for others, an even more dangerous state of affairs is created. The danger of eruption is greater when dissent cannot be expressed through legitimate means.’

The Nawa e Waqt editorial said, ‘Neither any anti state person was invited nor it was scheduled to talk against security institutions. She was raising a voice for the rights of Balochis as a sensitive Pakistani. Government should arrest the murderers of Sabeen. Every citizen should be given the right to live with freedom.’

Tracking down the murderer

After more than a week, Karachi police is still clueless. No eye witness is available as the driver had ducked and her mother receive bullets. No CCTV cameras were installed at that point of the road. The bullet shells match no previous murder. According to police, some extremist religious organization could be behind the murder. The high police official said that some foreign intelligence agency might exploited the situation to malign Pakistani secret agencies and to bring the Balochistan issue at national and international press levels.

‘Are secret agencies of Pakistan so naive that they could not anticipate the potential reaction and resultant limelight to the Balochistan issue that they wanted to suppress?’

Most of the media commentators agreed that the same circumstantial evidences pointed toward different potential killers. The easy conclusion especially in the context of the immediate background of forced cancellation of seminar at LUMS university and security establishment’s sensitivity towards Balochistan issue can be deceptive. ‘Are secret agencies of Pakistan so naive that they could not anticipate the potential reaction and resultant limelight to the Balochistan issue that they wanted to suppress?’, was the question asked by many writers and bloggers.  

The BBC Urdu columnist wrote on April 26, ‘It is not necessary that the murder was due to the Balochistan seminar. She was being threatened from many quarters. It is possible that some cunning killer chose a time when suspicion automatically goes towards secret agencies. It is also possible that enemy will do more attacks to fail the Pakistan China Economic Corridor.’

On the other hand, The Nation wrote, the province remains in an information black hole. It remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists. It has become obvious over the years that anyone who tries to highlight the Balochi issues is a target; regardless of age, gender, political orientation and motivation.’


‘Who killed her? No one knows, and may not know so for a long, long time. Yes, insinuations and accusations are flying thick and heavy but they lead us nowhere except deeper and deeper into a bottomless sea of confusion. My point is so maddeningly simple: the murder of Sabeen Mahmud reflects the callousness of the State towards the value of human life, and the absolute de-prioritization of citizens as the engine for progress and prosperity’, wrote Fahd Hussain on April 26.

Was it a mere coincidence that she was gunned down after a seminar on Balochistan that she had organized?

Famous author and journalist, Zahid Hussain wrote, ‘Was it the state or a non-state actor that silenced a brave voice of reason? Was it a mere coincidence that she was gunned down after a seminar on Balochistan that she had organized? Or was it one of those shadowy extremist groups who considered her liberal values anathema to their obscurantist worldview? Will we ever know? But then there are also reports of her receiving threats over the past six months.’

The Dawn editorial on April 30 said, ‘some of them are known to have leveled serious, unambiguous threats against her in the past. Moreover, this chaotic city, with its untrammeled growth, lies at the confluence of many competing regional interests, all of which makes her murder far from a cut and dried case’.

The Newspapers published reports of the civil society demonstrations against the murder of Sabeen in which, famous academician, A.H.Nayyer said, ‘it was now time to openly say that state was involved in this murder’. ‘Is Sabeen killed by the people who killed Liaqat Ali Khan or Hassan Nasir or Ayub Karmani or Akbar Bugti and his sister in Karachi or Nazir Abbasi or Saleem Shahzad, who burnt Maqsood Qureshi alive or shot Hamid Mir?’, asked prominent columnist Hassan Mujtaba at Daily Jang on April 30.

According to Samson Simon Sharaf on May 2, ‘one angle that investigators must probe is the statement by General Raheel Sharif on 16 April. He warned foreign intelligence agencies against trying to destabilize Pakistan by supporting terrorists in Balochistan and vowed to hit back. Perhaps someone decided to retaliate during the historic visit of the Chinese President on the pretext of unsilencing Balochistan.

Dont keep distance-let dialogue be

Wajahat Masood, in Daily Jang on May 2, wrote, ‘the narrative of oppression and exploitation fears spontaneity. Sabeen Mehmud wanted to open a window for fresh air at The Second Floor. She thought freedom of dialogue, culture of music and love of books was important. When state closes down the doors of free dialogue, the citizens wishing to open windows become helpless. Some are silenced and rest chose to remain silent’.

‘When I am told that there is a silver lining, my pessimism argues that every silver lining has a dark cloud.’

Prominent security expert, Mohammad Amer Rana wrote on May 3, ‘Dialogue should also be made a constant practice in Pakistani society to invite elements that have extremist tendencies with a view to engaging them in discussions of vital significance instead of just ignoring them. Such efforts are expected to promote a trend where efforts could be made to settle controversies among people and bridge the gap between them instead of leaving divisions to be settled in an undesirable way’.

As reported in the media, Malala Yusafzai said, ‘I condemn the tragic killing of a Pakistani hero, courageous human rights activist, Sabeen Mehmood. I call on authorities to arrest the perpetrators of this crime and protect the human righst and peace activists, especially those facing death threats’. 

‘When I am told that there is a silver lining, my pessimism argues that every silver lining has a dark cloud. On the very day when Sabeen was killed by gunmen, two public rallies were held in Pakistan by ‘banned’ terrorist outfits. Draw your own conclusions’, wrote senior journalist Ghazi Salah ud Din in The News on April 26.

Ik ben proMO*

Nu je hier toch bent

Om de journalistiek van MO* toekomst te geven, is de steun van elke lezer meer dan ooit nodig. Vind je dat in deze tijden van populisme en nepnieuws een medium als MO* absoluut nodig is om de waarheid boven te spitten? Word proMO*.

Wil je bijdragen tot de mondiale (onderzoeks)journalistiek in het Nederlandstalig taalgebied? Dat kan, als proMO*.

Wil je er mee voor zorgen dat de journalistiek van MO* mogelijk blijft en, ondanks de besparingspolitiek, verder uitgebouwd wordt? Dat doe je, als proMO*.

Je bent proMO* voor € 4/maand of € 50/jaar.

Word proMO* of Doe een gift