On April 24, men riding motorbikes shot human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud as she was leaving her Karachi NGO, The Second Floor. The discussion she had just organised, “Unsilencing Balochistan”, had featured Maman Qadeer, a Baloch who leads protest marches against military action in the insurgency-stricken province. No one knew who had done it, so India was named. Then Balochistan, where India was supposed to be helping the insurrectionists, was named. Then other things got mixed up. Opinion got divided: she was working against the state, some said. The state had already got involved, unwittingly, by scaring universities in Lahore and Karachi off discussing Balochistan
and its “disappeared” people. The obvious was ignored.
Finally, on May 20, Sindh CM Syed Qaim Ali Shah disclosed that Sabeen had been killed by four terrorists who had also killed 42 Ismaili Bohra Muslims in a bus attack. The four were students convinced of the violent dogma of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan. They had confessed after being caught.
Then the CM said he had never said India had done it. He had only surmised it, because “wasn’t India already doing it in Sindh and Balochistan?” He didn’t say Pakistan was yet to prove any direct Indian interference in Balochistan. The Sindh bit was new, unless he was taking a swipe at the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which wins elections in Karachi and whose killers had recently confessed to being trained for terror by RAW in India. Now the MQM was off the hook in the public eye. According to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the “Islamic State and Taliban had acted in unison”.
NGOs are hated in Pakistan. “Funded from abroad, carrying out foreign agendas”, the officials say. The public, led by lawyers and journalists, also leans to this xenophobic asabiyya, affirming that we are all Pakistanis. The intelligence agencies draw their bread and butter from this hatred. A nation becomes a nation on the basis of asabiyya (hatred for those “not-nation”), which can’t stand an NGO carrying out “enemy” agendas like human rights.
The West was on the wrong side for India in the Cold War and NGOs were not favoured by New Delhi. In Pakistan, human rights stood in the way of Islamic law and the clause about religious freedom, meaning you can change religion, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights began to rankle as the state teleology became sharia. Today, women running NGOs suffer: Teesta Setalvad in India and Sabeen Mahmud in Pakistan. Only, in Pakistan, they can get killed. India has placed the Ford Foundation, which has spent $500 million since 1952 on NGOs fighting injustice, advancing democracy and improving education, on a national security watchlist.
Officially, Balochistan is where India is supposed to be doing mischief. You can believe this if you ignore all the literature outlining Pakistan’s self-destructive process of nation-building after 1947. But the paranoia of the state is intense once you apply the keyword, India.
There are many elements that kill for their own agenda and also for you if you request it and make concessions for them. When Pakistan attacked Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, an al-Qaeda stronghold, in 2007, al-Qaeda punished it by creating the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). On December 21, 2014, Sabeen had organised a protest in front of Lal Masjid, against its chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, for not condemning the TTP’s massacre of children in Peshawar. The protest forced the Islamabad police to register a case against Aziz. Sabeen had earlier angered al-Qaeda affiliates by staging a protest outside a Peshawar church where scores of Christians were killed by suicide bombers.
The TTP could have killed Sabeen for her Lal Masjid action. It should be recalled that the TTP was actually created for Aziz. Or the state could have got al-Qaeda to do the job, as the UN judge Heraldo Munoz diagnosed in Getting away with Murder (2014): “Benazir Bhutto knew there were potential assassins waiting for her, but she did not suspect just one single figure or group. Baitullah Mehsud’s Pakistani Taliban was not the sole radical group that had a motive to kill her… There were three other suicide bomber squads in addition to Mehsud’s that would attempt to kill her: a squad linked to Hamza bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden; one made up of Red Mosque militants; and another from a Karachi-based militant group. She was convinced that these terrorists would not act alone. She feared the militants could be activated by their handlers high up in the structures of Pakistani power — specifically by militant sympathisers within the Musharraf government.”
But the case-building was against the NGOs, a national consensus item. Riaz Haq, describing himself as founder and president of Pak-Alumni Worldwide, took to social media: “There are hundreds of foreign-funded NGOs operating in Pakistan. some are likely being used as cover to push foreign agendas. It has been established that the CIA used one such organisation to fund a fake polio vaccination campaign in Abbottabad as part of its hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The Clinton Foundation… has come under severe criticism for accepting millions of dollars from foreign contributors.”
Then this nugget of communal arousal, using China as a stimulant: “The ink on China-Pakistan agreements was barely dry when Western media and foreign-funded NGOs in Pakistan started playing up the Baloch insurgency. Is it a mere coincidence? Or a well-thought-out plan to try to sabotage Pak-China alliance”?
Then this direct attack on Sabeen: “Two key events have made headlines in Pakistan and elsewhere to coincide with President Xi Jinping’s Pakistan visit. First, ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’ gathering took place in Karachi at T2F NGO headed by Sabeen Mahmud, after it was cancelled at LUMS, Lahore. Second, an interview of Bramdagh Bugti, the man who is running the insurgency in remote parts of Balochistan, from a Swiss hotel room, was widely published by Western media”. Now Pakistan has to digest another reversal in its habit of misdiagnosis.
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’