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Pakistan’s vanishing voices(Hindu)

Over the past few days, five Pakistani activists including the poet Salman Haider have gone missing. The incidents have left the rights groups, already under pressure from the military and extremist outfits, alarmed. Nobody has claimed responsibility, and the family members haven’t got any ransom calls. The government says it will find them, but the investigation that started after Haider’s disappearance on January 6 seems to have reached nowhere; since then four more have gone missing. Although the full facts are not available, the perception that the disappearances are somehow linked has gained credence. They were all active social media-based campaigners for human rights and critical of the military and its support for militancy. They challenged the extremist narrative propagated by the fundamentalist groups and promoted the idea of a modern, inclusive Pakistan, largely through Facebook posts and blogs. Haider was known for his strong stand on rights violations in Balochistan.

This is not the first time activists and writers critical of the military-terror complex have come under attack in Pakistan. For years both the security apparatus and militant groups have used force to silence critics. Liberal activist and author Raza Rumi, who had criticised state support for militants, was attacked by an extremist outfit in March 2014. A year later, activist Sabeen Mahmud was shot dead in Karachi after she hosted a debate on Balochistan. This time the victims are social media activists, and it is not hard to see the pattern. In Pakistan where television faces censorship and the print media is under pressure, social media platforms are a thriving space where people express views without fear. Whoever is behind the disappearances is targeting such free debates. This should be a wake-up call to the Pakistani state. Some commentators have already implicated the state, citing the pattern in the disappearances and the military’s track record in dealing with dissent. The Interior Minister has said the government “is not in the business of disappearing people”, but he has the responsibility to find out what happened to the activists. For decades Pakistan tolerated a culture of violence within its society for political and strategic benefits, but this has backfired. Liberal space is shrinking in the wake of challenges from the extremists that benefited from the state’s tolerance of violence. The government has to take bold measures to check these groups and promote free and fearless thinking if it wants the already vulnerable democratic dynamics to survive.

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