Updated: April 29, 2015 12:01:01 am
In all the pessimism that hangs over Pakistan and about it, if there is a ray of hope, it is its articulate civil society. Political scientists have struggled to define that term accurately, but to see it in action in Pakistan, where it has existed since the time of General Zia, when ordinary women took to the streets to protest against the retrograde Hudood ordinance, is to know it. In the decades since, civil society has emerged as the real opposition in a country where even well-intentioned politicians are hesitant and afraid to speak on many issues for fear of incurring the wrath of the “establishment” and, lately, of one or another terrorist group. Since 2007, the extraordinary contribution of a lawyers’ movement in the downfall of General Pervez Musharraf demonstrated Pakistani civil society’s potential for playing a constructive role in nation-building.
Sabeen Mahmud was a true representative of this civil society — confident and passionate about her secular, progressive views, and unafraid of articulating them. Her killing in Karachi last week, as she drove home from a discussion on the situation in Balochistan that she had organised, was clearly the work of those who are insecure about the role of Pakistan’s activists as opinion makers, and in that sense reaffirmed the power of civil society.
It is pointless to ask who killed Sabeen. Perhaps it will never be known. Pakistan is still trying to figure out who killed a prime minister in 1951 and who killed a former prime minister in 2007. The real question is, cui bono? Who benefits now that Sabeen has been eliminated? The answer is obvious: those in Pakistan who did not want “sensitive issues” of “national importance” — and Balochistan is on top of that list — to become topics of democratic public discussion. Sabeen was killed not just because she was a particularly fearless opponent, but also because she was a powerful symbol for a generation of activists, post-2007, of democratic resistance and a voice for the oppressed. The perpetrators wanted to make an example of her and send out the message that dissent will not be tolerated. Pakistan’s activists have shown again and again, after each killing — of a child rights activist here, an anti-land grabbing activist there, anti-polio volunteers, educationists, journalists — that they will not be cowed. They may be in a minority but they have continued to speak up against the military, against the mullahs, against corrupt politicians, against blasphemy killings. They have been the only ones to speak up against the frightening range of terrorist groups that exist inside their country. Theirs have been the strongest voices for normalising relations with India. Sabeen’s killing is a big setback, but they will rise again.
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