Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Use Parliament to Contain Pakistani Democracy's Meltdown

When Pakistan's government passed a budget it carried out a standard annual process of state; a simple convention of government. However, the current collection of Strangeloves called the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) that has the majority in Parliament makes passing even the simplest act of legislation a difficult proposition. PTI's politicians act like they barely believe in the parliament they are a part of and this isn't helped by the whispers and bleats of their followers and leaders to tear down this system and replace it with an authoritarian presidential model. They are also not helped by acting repulsed at the presence of opposition parties in the parliament as if they were lower caste peasants whose very presence befouls their twitchy, delicate persons.

If democracy is to function, then the members of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) are to be allowed to operate in Parliament, comment on bills and issues bought up for discussion and do all the normal things a parliamentarian does in a national assembly (NA). The concept of a functioning    democracy were really bought to the edge by the hyperactive   drama in parliament over the last few weeks.

June in parliament was wild. Just consider: From the non-production of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) members of the NA, to Prime Minister Imran Khan's visible discomfort at being criticised in parliament (OF WHICH HE IS A MEMBER), to the prickliness of the PTI's politicos at being called "selected" after the debacle of manipulation that was last year's election, while the permanent administrative state (aka the army and intelligence agencies) and the government kept shooting themselves and others in the foot.Then the opposition struck back, starting with the IRL counter-trolling antics of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and the rest of the PPP/PML-N opposition amidst the arrests put out for their leaders.

Chernobyl's reactors may have gone into meltdown and met with disaster, but last week, Parliament contained the meltdown that has been ongoing in Pakistani politics. Despite the madness we've seen in and out of Parliament, that's been the silver lining to the last month.

The PTI has to learn to focus on getting a grip on whatever policy it has control of and focus on governance and not simply brainlessly regurgitate whatever the army feeds it otherwise if it just turns itself into the Army's paw it will end up in a further compromised position where real legal jeopardy can be brought against it like Nawaz or Benazir suffered.

The PPP and PML-N has to get serious. They really need to pull it together. Pakistan's political elites need to collectively stop their nation's authoritarian meltdown. They are under attack for anything that their politicos are alleged to have committed in their past. This is continued weaponisation of anti-corruption for the purposes of political manipulation towards anti-democratic ends is now extant across the more shakier democracies around the world. The PPP and PML-N may be planning to move against the government, but they have to look within their ranks at the compromised members of their parties (excluding the leadership) because if these compromised members are near key positions, when the government comes after them to politically suppress them, they would find themselves hamstrung by the government's actions. The leadership that is dogged by corruption charges, like Asif Ali Zardari, Shahbaz Sharif and the jailed Nawaz Sharif's (South Asian political parties and their inability to elect new leadership beyond dynasties is intensely exhausting) leaves these opposition parties open to being paralysed. Sindh, the only province that is ruled by an opposition party, is vulnerable to some attempt at overthrowing the government or initiating a governor's rule. It is beyond the scope of this blog on how to describe ways to fight out of Governor's rule, but the PPP in Sindh absolutely needs to get it together, gather all the political advantages it can and try and get some of the disgruntled locals in Sindh on their side by starting serious social programs that visibly address problems that afflict various populations of Sindh.

The naked greed and insane selfishness that is driving the Army and the intelligence agencies to repress democracy is to maintain the primacy of the Army in the Pakistani political system. They want resources to keep flowing toward the army and the economic perks and privileges of the top brass kept intact. Keeping the system off-balance and from not functioning properly, in an international environment where they can't overthrow the democracy itself and establish an open military dictatorship (and their inability to run a military government at that can be kept from going off the rails) means that this current oppressive environment will be perpetuated as long as the current command is in charge of the Army.

In the meantime, they are suppressing Pakistani television and the press and destabilising Pakistani politics so that their main enenmy, the PML-N, the PPP and the PTM are kept as far from wielding power or expressing their views or even being acknowledged, as much as possible. These parties have the right to wield power if they win votes, but because they collectively represent the rural majority and their urban supporters, if their voice is excluded, then a significant chunk of the population that needs government resources is deprived of it, and that can be diverted to a minority in the government.

Nusrat Javeed's column, "Pushing through a tough budget" captured the difficulty that covering this month in Pakistan represented. However, his pleas against losing his sanity, at the sight of seasoned politicians degenerating into clowns inside Pakistan's higher chambers, was something I sympathised with to an extent. I have very little expectations of Pakistani political propriety although when they are kept, it is nice. Politics is barely above a clown show in this country, but the attempts by political parties and members of the permanent state to keep it at that level must be avoided. These are the people's representatives after all. But here's the silver lining; all this dirty laundry was aired, all of this was bought to the public's attention and all of this was Parliament.

We did not see politics done through television screens, nor on the streets, or on containers, or    gheraos (siege) of the parliament, or in the mountains or back alleys amidst the disappearance of people (although that has been in the background of this), the sight of Pakistani politics melting down was mostly contained within Parliament's chambers. This doesn't mean that Pakistani politics has stabilised, but that the need for the military dominated political government to carry out basic government functions means it must go to parliament, and this is where the meltdown of Pakistani democracy can be arrested. Of course, now that the budget has been passed the governing PTI party is likely to withdraw from parliament into the shade of authoritarian occlusion, within which it feels most comfortable either howling for the blood of their political opponents, or spending their middle age pining for their salad days under Pakistan's worst dictatorships in the 1980's and 1960's. Watching the PTI is quite funny, it's like seeing people who have done nothing but get into catfights all their lives try to impersonate a Cold War authoritarian; it's a clown fascism all of its own.

The PPP and PML-N are withdrawing to plan how to deal with the current political landscape and trying to choose the most opportune time to strike out against this current government, preferring whenever the current budget's IMF cuts will have their worst effect. The army and intelligence agencies will go back to disappearing people and trying to restrict political and democratic rights as much as they can across Pakistan.

However, what this budget session showed was that Pakistan's parliamentary system can work, if these parties and the administrative state are forced to make it work.

Anti-democratic forces would prefer that all Pakistani politics happen outside parliament, so that the volatility and fissiparousness of Pakistani politics would force every group for themselves, breaking them down into smaller and smaller groups that could be played off against each other to maintain and direct the status quo towards the most authoritarian outcome. Parliament makes these forces come together and deal with each other and the powers outside it, shielding it as much as it can from anti-democratic manipulation and giving the rest of us a break from having Pakistani politics done disastrously on our television channels or our doorsteps in a society that does not respect democratic power in its daily life. It also has the added benefit of reinvigorating our civil, political and economic rights. After all, these people got together to divvy up the cash.

Otherwise, the status quo prefered by anti-democratic forces is authoritarian power for themselves, with everyone else weak and divided. Alongside working the courts and the streets, parliament needs to continue to be used effectively to contain anti-democratic forces.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen Killed in Sectarian Attack Close to Border

Attacks become more difficult to process in an oppressive atmosphere. The lack of a free flow of independently verifiable information leaves people dealing with claims by different oppressors as the bodies pile up. The attack in this case, is the mass-murder by suicide car bomb of at least 27 members of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) and injuring 13 in the Iranian city of Khash in the province of Sistan-Balochestan.
Jaish Al-Adl, a Sunni extremist remnant of the mostly defeated Jundullah has taken responsibility for the attack. Jundullah was destroyed with the aid of Pakistan in 2010, when it’s leader Abdol Malek Rigi was caught and then transported to Iran where he was executed for his terrorist acts. Jundullah recruits from Iran’s Baloch minority who live along the Pakistan-Iran border in Sistan-Balochestan.
While the Iranian Baloch speak Balochi like their Pakistani Baloch counterparts, Jundullah’s recruitment is motivated by sectarian anger at being oppressed by Tehran. In an age when a trans-national mutation like ISIS has spread cash and terrorists around the world in a manner that has tried to flare up existing Sunni extremists and galvanised serious counter-intelligence, counter-terrorist and military responses , it is unsurprising that a sect-based organization like Jaish ul-Adl has become a more serious threat. This attack sadly fits the pattern of bombings and anti-Iranian attacks that have been happening since the autumn of 2018.
Iranian Highway
Pakistan has been at the recieving end of these attacks since the end of the Cold War, but the general destruction of the Pakistani Taliban by the end of 2015 did not bring freedom from splinter groups of the Taliban, like Hizbul-Ahrar which actually just killed four policemen the day before this attack. The attack in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was another tragedy, but also shows the evolution of these splinter groups: killing security forces officials, especially those involved in down and dirty open dealings with the public, that make them not too popular, but also are the tip of the spear against these splinter groups. The IRGC in Iran, is much more malignant than the corrupt Pakistani police, as at least the Pakistani police are not involved in ideologically policing the public at large and hunting down the political enemies of the de jure ruling regime. At least at this point in history.

It is also coincidential that this is not the first time that attacks have simultaneously happened on Pakistani and Iranians security forces on the same day. On January 30, the Pakistani police in Loralai Balochistan were killed and four Iranian bomb-squad members were injured trying to defuse a secondary explosive, that was supposed to kill after luring in people from an initial explosion. Sadly, the presence of extremism in the whole region will likely facilitate these attacks.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps members parade near the Iran-Pakistan border
This targeting of security forces allows the terrorists to rally their supporters, while not letting these fascists set off a wider repulsion and mobilisation among the general public. That would concentrate political attention and action against them, such as after the Army Public School massacre or September 11. The attack on Tehran in September last year by the Sunni extremists may have set off that mobilization, at least among the Iranian state and its arms.
Iran is generally a well secured state, however the instability of states and regions around it have allowed covert routes into the country, mostly used by smugglers, to be traversed by terrorists, their facilitators and supporters. Sistan-Balochestan lies on one of these smuggling routes, as human traffickers and drug smugglers go through the borders that province shares with Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a lot of corruption along these routes of the security forces of frankly, all three countries, facilitated by its remoteness and the sporadic nature of oversight in these regions. The paramilitaries, like Pakistan’s Frontier Corps are known for having been corrupted at various points of time by smugglers as attested to by the story of the Pakistan Army officers who died test driving a smuggled sports car.
Smuggling is a serious issue in the area and it is no surprise that Iranian goods are found throughout the Western parts of Pakistani Balochistan, such as in Gwadar (Hello, SEO). The remoteness of the area allows access for Iranian goods, when major Pakistani distribution points are too far away or the roads or the freight on them is too expensive, infrequent or non-existent.
A scene along the Pakistan-Iran border
The sectarian oppression of the Iranian Baloch is a long standing grievance of the militants that have emerged in the area. Adding to that the general mayhem in Pakistani Balochistan, with the nationalist/secessionist insurgency running there, that has not been politically resolved at all and the mayhem of an Afghanistan at war, with foreign forces and the Taliban fighting there, then it is no surprise that the lack of resolution of these problems has pushed destabilization to the margins of Iran as well.
This is also not a bad time for lunatics interested in destabilising Iran, as the hopes for peace and an orderly winding down of hostilities in the region hoped for by the 2015 US-Iran nuke deal have been replaced by a ramping up of the low intensity conflict against Iran by US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the ultra-Sunni militants in the region.
It is harder to come to grips with this story due to the grip of political oppression that Pakistani Balochistan has been thrust into and the lack of wider political will in extracting it from it. Pakistani civil politics needs to get it together on the civil side and not be manipulated by extreme or paranoiac arguments and move to de-escalate the security crisis it has allowed to develop in its South-Western province by outsourcing decision making on Balochistan to the security organs of the state. It has to give Baloch people their civil rights, and after two decades of pointless conflict, let the province control the access and distribution of its mineral resources and the use of its coastal region.
The lack of reliable information from Balochistan is also because, on the Pakistani side, reporters have been killed with impunity and even newspaper distribution has been disrupted by militants or arms of the state. This state of affairs is repulsive to human rights and even basic human decency.
In its extreme  form, this sort of oppression just throws up the same problem in a different manner. Iran, unlike Pakistan and the compact provided by its constitution and political processes does not guarantee any form of recognizable human rights. You can see what this has done to its victory over Jundullah. Abdol Malek Rigi, who was the spoke from which that organization ran was captured and executed. Look how the terror Jundullah carried out declined in the news from its height of 2009-2010 and subsequently search results of its actions did not reach those same heights over time. References to it, in fact seem to be academic harking back to it as a conduit for today's woes.

But no new freedoms or serious attempts at rehabilitation of the Iranian Baloch were attempted. Look at how Jaish ul-Adl emerged from Jundullah’s remnants, went on to really become noticed during ISIS’ high season in spring of 2014 and has kept flaring up to approximately the same height of trouble.

This persistent low level of violence is something the states have to address more holistically, rather than just blaming foreigners and fobbing these problems on to their security forces. This region needs them to do better and their peoples deserve better.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Mercy is one of God's names and its exercise keeps mortals human

People say the world's wealth is growing nowadays, but human decency seems to be in low supply in the political economy that this economic growth seems to have spawned. This is just something that I see and can state back.

Aasia Bibi, a lady who has now endured over nine years of incarceration over an allegation of blasphemy. On Monday, the decision to execute her for the crime of blasphemy was pushed forward.

She has suffered all of this over an allegation of blasphemy leveled against her by a prayer leader, using a caste and religion based dispute over drinking from the same cup with three women in her village in 2009. The blasphemy law was used to convict her and then put her in danger of execution, which is what this law calls for.

The Governor Salmaan Taseer called for forgiveness for Aasia Bibi. He was mostly politically isolated when he said this, with scattered calls for reform of the blasphemy law. However a fundamentalist mobilisation in late 2010 enhanced the polarization over this issue. It must be mentioned that Meher Bokhari really drummed up a lot of controversy over Taseer’s actions to try and get some mercy for Aasia Bibi who has been slated for execution. This dovetailed with calls for the blasphemy law to be reformed because many people had observed that it had been misused to settle disputes or to grab land or property. However, these arguments appeared academic in light of the reactionary religious rhetoric that began to march in the streets against Governor Taseer.

Then the Governor was killed by his police bodyguard on 4th January 2011 and the political administration of the country under President Asif Zardari’s government (2008-2013) went into paralysis on matters of extremism. This paralysis slowed down action against the Taliban insurgency back then that was killing Pakistanis as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan picked up on the issue of blasphemy and a militant from the TTP worked with a cell to arrange for the Minister’s assassination for the purely strategic and opportunistic reason of forestalling a military operation against the Taliban strongholds in the North Waziristan district of FATA by rallying public support for it in Punjab and much of Pakistan in the name of anti-blasphemy.

The TTP’s subsequent calls for murder in the name of anti-blasphemy bore this strategy of theirs out, until they were finally turfed out of their North Waziristan base after the Karachi airport attack and terrorist attacks in Pakistan began to decline since 2015 onwards. The further weaponization of the threat of hair-trigger responses to issues surrounding blasphemy still remain.

By 2016, with the execution of Governor Taseer’s killer, at least a third man was now buried because of this case. A great deal of death has resulted because of an argument over a water bowl in a field and this death and the subsequent threat of more death and destruction looms over this case.

All of the above that I have said is factual and is neither a discussion, nor a commentary and can be borne out by facts. A further fact is that a woman has now been in jail over nine years with the threat of death constantly hovering over her.

Another fact is the after-effect of execution. It is one thing for a mob to kill someone. But when a state executes someone, the effect can redound permanently to the state and society. The lack of mercy is obvious and can be self-replicating across time. A precedent can be set that can keep harming people in that state and society in perpetuity.

The most infamous execution in Pakistan’s case is the hanging of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It haunted the man who ordered it, Zia-ul-Haq, through out the 1980’s and propelled his daughter to the premier-ship of Pakistan in 1988. It has been called a judicial murder for the way it was railroaded through a militarily controlled court. Executing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did not save Zia-ul-Haq from a violent and mysterious death.

Many judges and lawyers in Pakistan have suffered death at the hands of extremists. Since the courts have become strengthened after Chaudhry Iftikhar’s judicial and lawyers revolt against General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, it seems that Pakistan’s legal history has been written as much as in blood as with ink. No one wishes to take the courts, its officers’ decisions, arguments or actions lightly. However, in light of the sacrifices that a decade plus of bloodletting has produced, mercy might be a path forward to a less fraught future. Because that is what court precedents create: a new future.

As much as death has been dealt to a group, dealing death to another person is not an obligation. And that remains a fact. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Pakistan at 70: A better country?

So it’s been nearly five years since I was regularly writing These Long Wars. Why am I returning to blogging after 5 years? It feels like things have changed, only in the most slightest way for the better in Pakistan, because the Pakistanis decided they wanted a better country.

Do blogs even matter that much any more? They remain a place for people to post extended thoughts but that fascist hold-out Facebook, is where people now seem to do this, with extended groups of their friends seeing it. Facebook and the fascism that blossomed on it in the wake of Salman Taseer’s murder made me realise the futility of trying to argue with some people. The murder of the Governor of Punjab, at the hands of a lunatic guard of his, inspired by some nut-job preachers, whilst the man tried to show mercy to a condemned woman, and the subsequent inhuman response is what made me reconsider how many people are even reachable by rational argument.
That fascist response by people baying for a man’s blood and trying to justify his murder came as a shock on the internet but it has been digested and unfortunately absorbed by a lot of people now. Pakistanis on Facebook opened fan pages for the murderer of the Salmaan Taseer the Governor of Punjab. That is beneath disgusting. It was shocking then, but it is now just contemptible. The murderer, Mumtaz Qadri was a lunatic who was already considered unreliable by the Punjab police and had spoken with Taseer’s security detail of his plans to harm or assassinate the governor.

At some point, going on Facebook began to feel like going with Nazis to the Holocaust museum. Speaking of which, politics has been insane over the last two weeks. Generally, late July and early August are slow news periods, unless something terrible is going on and quite a few terrible things have happened.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Titan's Fall: Rest in Peace Abdul Sattar Edhi

Credit: Hussain/Wiki Commons
When a tree falls in the forest, the ground shakes. Edhi grew to hold up so much of Pakistani society with his independent ambulance network, whilst the government of Pakistan provided none that, well, people literally owe him their life. And now when this tree has fallen, the ground shook. The number of children who did not die from infanticide because they were left in the cradles outside his charity’s offices, the poor patients provided medication and treatment, the mentally disabled he housed and the waves upon waves of orphans that Abdul Sattar Edhi raised from childhood to adulthood in his orphanages…makes everyone from the Pakistani citizen to the Pakistani state look small.
Credit: Sabir Nazir
Abdul Sattar Edhi leaves this world with a patch of humanity that is thankfully alive because of this man, his family and his foundation’s dedication.
Abandoned children live because of the cots outside his office, patients draw breath because they were taken to hospital in his ambulances, orphans have roofs over their heads and a reasonable life expectancy compared to if they lived on the street.
In junior school, I had to write an essay on a person I admired. Growing up in the disaster of Karachi in the mid-1990's I had no idea who to reach for as a real life hero.
And in desperation I wrote about Edhi, because that was all I could reach for. Abdul Sattar Edhi was a catch-all hero for Pakistanis. Now that he is gone words fail me on who to describe as a Pakistani who is a hero living in Pakistan. Abdul Sattar Edhi’s kidneys shut down over three years, refusing treatment abroad at the offer of former President Asif Ali Zardari. Edhi trusted Pakistan and Pakistanis dying from natural causes at 92. This titan has now fallen and even his natural death feels like a loss.

Credit: Zia Mazhar/Associatd Press
With so many of them dying, 2016 has been a bad year for beloved celebrities, and Edhi counts as one of Pakistan’s beloved heroes. The week since Edhi passed has seen a great deal of news, but I think Mr Edhi deserves acknowledgement for setting a precedent where so many others (like numerous Pakistani governments across his lifetime) have failed to do so.  Mr Edhi and his organisation embodied humanitarianism, with their ubiquitous nation-wide ambulance service, and their total willingness to take care of anyone stricken by emergencies, with no questions asked of the victim about their religion, sect, ethnicity or gender.
By now Mr Edhi’s quote about his ambulance has been repeated everywhere he has memorialised, but it bears repeating in an age when sectarianism is being openly peddled across the Muslim world.
The quote is that when Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi was asked “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in you ambulance” and Mr Edhi responded “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you.”
Credit: File Photo/Aaj.TV
This lack of discrimination and follow-up proselytization stuck in the craw of a number of religious and ethnic crypto- (and open) fascists. Mr Edhi’s son, Faisal Edhi has had to reiterate in a visibly apologetic tone to the dangerous, murder-prone power brokers of Pakistani society that he will continue to use the Edhi Foundation to provide services on a universal basis. This is the sick, disgusting point that Pakistani society has reached: when there is peace, those who provide services to the poor and the stricken have to be terrified when they promise that they will provide services without any discrimination. Powerful people in Pakistan want discrimination, they want this society to be ghettoised and to be divided so that their power is not challenged society, and in fact society itself does not give the impression of even being able to challenge them.
Credit: Feica
A final note about societal divisions and Mr Abdul Sattar Edhi, would not be complete without mentioning the spectacle at his funeral prayers.
Abdul Sattar Edhi was given a state funeral and slightly unexpectedly, the Pakistan military took over and turned the funeral into a militarised spectacle.
Credit: AP
The funeral prayers for Mr. Edhi saw the Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, the Governor of Sindh Province Ishratul Ibad and the President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain present. The divisions became apparent, with these VVIP diginitaries in the first row of the funeral prayers, on all sides of that row and the two rows behind them were full of officers, soldiers, sailors and members of Pakistan's bureaucratic, political and military elite.
Credit: Xinhua/Masroor
A giant empty space capable of holding four rows of mourners was maintained between the VVIP's and the security and the rest of the mourners at National Stadium, were kept at the back at Edhi’s funeral prayer. This visibly conveyed the social and class division that Edhi had so obviously spent his entire life fighting against.
  Credit: Reuters
The divisions witnessed at Edhi’s funeral prayers, and the all-military controlled event it became was very strange. We have to consider how all of this was to pay homage to a man who had to scrimp for donations to run an ambulance service for Pakistanis because the government would not provide one whilst the most well funded part of Pakistan’s state was now honouring him in death. The division between the first three rows full of soldiers, sailors and Pakistan’s military and political elite and the rest of the mourners in the overview photos of the funeral prayers just drove home why Pakistan needed Abdul Sattar Edhi and why it will continue to need someone like him.
Credit: Sabir Nazir/The Friday Times

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sabeen Mahmud's Murder: Another Killing Amidst Pakistan’s Democratic Trappings

How Sabeen Mahmud's murder reveals the limits of Pakistan's democracy.

A protest against the murder of social activist Sabeen Mahmud. She was killed after hosting an event for the relatives of missing Baloch activists.

Sabeen Mahmud was killed on Apr. 24 after hosting an event in Karachi about the brutal suppression of an ethnic nationalist insurgency in the restive province of Balochistan. The murder of another leading Pakistani social activist has drawn attention to the systematic elimination of the few liberal voices in the country. Beginning with the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007, several outspoken critics of Pakistan’s jihadis and their backers within the state apparatus have either been killed or silenced by intimidation. Yet Pakistan also continues to maintain the trappings of democracy, making it difficult for many both inside and outside Pakistan to understand the method in the violent madness.

Pakistan’s notorious and ubiquitous ‘deep state’ — personified by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency — had blocked a similar event on the suppression of the insurgency in Balochistan at other venues but Mahmud allowed the event to take place at her café and arts space. She was killed soon after she left the talk. Although some critics have pointed the finger at ISI, others have raised the valid question that killing Mahmud right after the event was bound to attract attention to the agency and could be the work of those who wanted precisely to direct blame at the ISI. Unexplained murders in Pakistan are often blamed on ‘foreign hands.’  In most democratic countries, speculation about who murdered Sabeen Mahmud would end with a proper investigation and a credible trial. But Pakistan is not like most other democratic countries.

Pakistan has an elected parliament and a diverse media. It allows contestation for power among an assortment of political parties. Many Pakistanis are able to criticize their government and debate the corruption of politicians. This creates an illusion of Pakistan’s freedom glass being half full.

On the flip side, there are unsolved murders of public figures and journalists; bodies of Baloch nationalists dumped after being killed by security services; and the attacks and threats of violence by as many as 48 Islamist terrorist groups.

Pakistan is considered one of the most dangerous places for journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has recorded the killing of 56 journalists in the country over the last two decades. Several journalists, like Hamid Mir  and Raza Rumi have escaped death after being shot at in what were clearly attempts to silence them.

Violence in Balochistan is endemic. Last year 153 bullet-riddled bodies were recovered in Balochistan, according to human rights groups, which blamed security services for systematically eliminating suspected Baloch militants as well as their sympathizers. Baloch militants, too, have been responsible for killing members of other ethnic groups whom they see as encroachers on their traditional tribal homeland.

There is little discussion of Balochistan in the national or international media. Foreign journalists are not allowed to visit the province except with special permission. Some, like the New York Times’ Carlotta Gall, have been beaten up upon arrival in Quetta, the provincial capital, to dissuade them from looking for stories there.

The attack on Hamid Mir followed his attempt to discuss Balochistan on his television show and now Sabeen Mahmud’s murder has also followed an attempt to talk about the situation in the province.

From an international perspective, Balochistan is deemed less important than the challenge of Islamist terrorism in Pakistan. Jihadis, some of whom have been supported by ISI in an effort to project Pakistani power in Afghanistan and against arch-rival India, have wreaked havoc in Pakistan for years. Several thousand Pakistanis, have died in terrorist attacks across the country.

The Pakistani military is engaged in battling some jihadist terrorist groups in the country’s northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan. But other internationally designated terrorist groups continue to operate openly in Pakistan’s cities and their leaders are even able to appear on national television.

The systematic elimination of liberal voices in Pakistan can best be understood in the context of red lines set by the ‘deep state.’ Arrogant in the assumption that they alone know what is good for the country and what should or should not be publicly discussed, Pakistan’s spooks allow only a ‘circumscribed democracy.’ This explains why some ostensibly liberal Pakistanis survive while others do not.

Subjects that incur the wrath of the ‘deep state’ and its terrorist allies include their atrocities in Balochistan and the persisting ties between the ISI and jihadis. Other topics that upset them include suggesting normalization of ties with India without resolving the Kashmir dispute or proposing curtailment of the military’s role in policy-making.

The killing of Sabeen Mahmud is most likely meant to be a warning to others not to publicly discuss state enforced disappearances in Balochistan. Pakistan’s liberals are tolerated as long as they stay within their prescribed limits. They may discuss gender inequality and politicians’ corruption, even religious intolerance. But questioning the ‘deep state’ and its myopic vision is where the line is drawn.
(This post was published at