The spell of silence spelt with a B


Pakistan needs to engage with and within itself


The forced cancellation of an academic talk at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) last Thursday named ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ has attracted much attention in the news and social media.

As a reaction to the cancellation, students of LUMS have begun protesting state censorship and clamouring on the issue of academic freedom both on campus and at various other forums.

Social media has been one of these fronts. Inevitably, the students’ campaigns have invited attacks, disparaging comments and accusations; with journalists like Moeed Pirzada jumping on the bandwagon.

A great chunk of these responses ranged from the absurd right to the threatening and abusive. Some standard strands among these were preposterous analogies between Mama Qadeer and Mullah Fazlullah; allegations of LUMS deliberately presenting a biased narrative, the age-old national favourite charge of ‘maligning’ Pakistan; and lastly, relating the cancelled talk to the murder of poor labourers in Turbat.

The first strand that establishes an analogy between Mullah Fazlullah and Mama Qadeer centred on comments asking LUMS to invite Mullah Fazlullah to a talk since the university had invited Qadeer. Although it is an insulting blow to one’s mental and intellectual capacities to respond to such inanities, it is necessary in order to dispel misconceptions which hold Mama Qadeer to be a terrorist or militant.

As Hamid Mir was quick to point out on Twitter: “There is not a single terrorism case registered against Mama Qadeer Baloch anywhere in Pakistan; he is a human rights activist.”

If raising the issue of the missing persons is an act of trashing Pakistan’s image, then the Supreme Court of Pakistan must be held most at guilt

Abbas Nasir, writing in his Dawn column on the issue, wrote:

“Whether Mama Qadeer, whose whole campaign was triggered by his son’s disappearance in Balochistan, is a separatist, an ultra-nationalist or a diehard patriot is beside the point. What ought to be undeniable is that he has a right to speak.”

It must also be questioned that if Mama Qadeer — the septuagenarian who marched 2,000 kilometres on foot from Quetta to Islamabad with a group of Baloch men, women and children to draw attention and alarm to the enforced disappearances in Balochistan through nonviolent and peaceful means — is indeed a dangerous individual, held up by the infamous ‘hidden hands’ and driven by ‘external forces’, why is it that the state has not tried or is trying him? The answer is manifest.

Moving on, the talk at LUMS was accused of ‘presenting a biased picture’, and of course, ‘maligning Pakistan’, that should’ve included other individuals in order to ‘balance’ it. With a special focus on the pressing and disturbing issue of the missing persons, the reason a panel of Baloch and other human rights activists and academics was constituted was because of the very fact that the state’s narrative has gotten ample space and been fed to people in increasing doses since Pakistan came into existence.

Saroop Ijaz emphasises the same in ‘The absurdity of silencing’:

“The view of the State is inescapable, from television screens to school curriculum, and by the time they get to university most students can narrate the official point of view almost on auto-pilot.”

And if raising the issue of the missing persons is an act of trashing Pakistan’s image, then the Supreme Court of Pakistan must be held most at guilt. Moreover, even after the administration’s offers to include more people in the panel in order to dilute perceptions of bias, the forced cancellation was still pushed ahead. The talk was purely an academic discussion which was to be moderated and later subjected to the questions and comments of students, of what was expected to be a jam-packed session. However, it is truly unsettling that a discussion of Pakistan’s problems is more worrying to some, and more maligning of Pakistan, than the existence of these problems themselves regarding which the least we can do is not be silent about.

The notion that LUMS was presenting some biased or misinformed picture hinges largely on the assumption that people are not intelligent enough to think for themselves and discern bias. It is in this context that the rejection of the state-imposed intellectual and academic ‘guardianship’ and state-sanctioned ‘truths’ becomes important. Let us think, listen and speak for ourselves, thank you.

The late Eqbal Ahmad wrote in 1995:

“I do not know of any country’s educational system that so explicitly subordinates knowledge to politics. Teaching and writing of history… has now passed from historians to hacks.”

It is deplorable how Eqbal Ahmad’s words were ignored then, only to resonate relevantly even today as Pakistan continues its descent into decline.

Coming to the last strand, unfortunately, the brutal killing of labourers in Turbat were used as ammunition in the volleys hurled at LUMS students on social media irrespective of the fact that abhorrence towards state subjugation of the Baloch; and oppression carried out on non-Baloch by non-state actors is not mutually exclusive; but very much in the same vein.

The forced cancellation of ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ has reminded us Balochistan is closer to home than we think

Talat Aslam, Senior Editor, The News (Karachi), tweeted:

“Don’t mix up two different issues. The cause of missing persons needs to be highlighted, terrorism condemned”.

Columnist Abdul Majeed Abid also threw light on a significant aspect:

“Lives of settlers in Balochistan are as important as the rest. Just refrain from using one atrocity to silence the other.”

The practice of silencing the cries from atrocities in Pakistan is not new. It is the norm; and the construction and monopolisation of narratives is central to this. A striking testament to this is found if narratives dissimilar and divergent from the dominant one are considered and denounced as a ‘threat’.

Pakistan needs to engage with and within itself. There are atrocities, there are grievances, there is dissent; and suppressing them is not the solution since we all know how well that worked out in ’71 at the cost of blood and half of the country.

The forced cancellation of ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ has reminded us Balochistan is closer to home than we think. State intrusion in intellectual spaces is an assault not limited to the academic sphere. It is a threat to all free voices and minds anywhere in Pakistan. The necessity to have a conversation, a dialogue cannot assert itself more sharply than today; because for too long silence has prevailed, and for too long we have surrendered to its spell, and the powers that summon it. Let this be not any longer.


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