On 24th April, Pakistan lost another brave daughter. Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead in the street while leaving T2F in Karachi where she had just finished leading a discussion on Balochistan. Sabeen’s mother was walking with her and she too was caught in the hail of bullets and now struggles for her life. This latest killing has shocked the nation’s conscience…or has it? Many liberals on social media have condemned the attack and placed the blame on state agencies. This was responded by others who protested that these are unfair accusations being cast with complete lack of evidence. While it is too soon to know for certain who was behind Sabeen’s murder, this cowardly act is the perfect time to talk about the role of state terrorism.
One of the most common responses to accusations against ISI responsibility is why would ISI kill Sabeen Mahmud when they could have killed Mama Qadeer? The answer to this is obvious: Killing Mama Qadeer would make a martyr for Baloch separatists. Killing Sabeen Mahmud sends a message to the rest of us not to ask questions about Balochistan. And why not? Why should we not ask questions?
The answer lies in the very subject of the talk that got Sabeen killed. Human rights organisations across the world have reported on kidnapping, torture, and murder of Baloch by Pakistan armed forces and intelligence agencies. Our own Supreme Court has been forced to threaten contempt proceedings against the government for failing to comply with orders on missing persons. When agencies think it will be good to kill Mama Qadeer, they will kill Mama Qadeer.
Of course, that does not mean that ISI killed Sabeen. Others have asked why so many are pointing fingers at ISI and not at militant groups like ASWJ, the same ones that have been involved in other recent attacks like the attempted assassination of Raza Rumi. This raises some other uncomfortable questions, though, like whether there are links between militant groups and ISI, and whether ISI uses ASWJ and other jihadi groups as proxies against Baloch activists and others, as was reported last year.
The attack against Sabeen is nothing new. We have seen it all before. Politicians will condemn the attack, but carefully. In a few days police will arrest some low-level militant or two and register a FIR. They will relax in jail for some time while the case winds its way through the system, then they will be quietly released due to lack of evidence. By this time, public opinion will be carefully molded by TV anchors and newspaper editors who remind us of the sensitivity of the topic, our obligations to national security, Sabeen’s irresponsibility in inviting ‘anti-Pakistan elements’, and the possibility of whether she was being funded by some meddlesome foreign agency. We will listen to sermons that tell us how unIslamic Sabeen was. How she had transgressed all boundaries and was using her cafe to turn people away from Islam with Western books and ideas. Some of it we will internalise, some of it we will dismiss…but we will do it silently. We won’t interrupt the sermons, and we won’t ask uncomfortable questions. And that was the point, wasn’t it? Sabeen Mahmud was killed not only to silence her, but to silence all of us.
There is no proof that ISI or any state agency is behind Sabeen’s killing. Probably there never will be any evidence. Even if some video proof was leaked, would we ever be sure that it was not faked by foreign powers out to defame our national institutions? So maybe we shouldn’t be asking who killed Sabeen to silence us. Maybe we should be asking ourselves whether they have succeeded in doing so…