When Sabeen Mahmud was gunned down outside the office of an initiative she founded, grief swept across the border and its ripples were felt in many quarters that knew and cherished friendships with Sabeen. Her murder was not just an assault on her person and existence, but also on the effort she pioneered and kept alive on pure grit. Her murder was an attempt to silence the conversation on Pakistan’s approach to cracking down on separatism in Balochistan. Her murder came closely at the heels of an event she organized and carried out alongside Mama Abdul Qadeer, a Baloch activist, who campaigned for the missing people that were abducted by the security sector system in the state.
For Pakistan, Balochistan is a touchy subject. The birth and sustenance of a separatist and nationalist movement in the region has turned into a concerted effort at insurgency, especially in the last decade. Balochistan’s separatist movement has been seeking an independent status from Pakistan, on account of the allegation that Pakistan’s government is oppressive and is more inclined towards extracting the energy and mineral resources that the region is rich for. The separatist movement has seen instances where people have “disappeared”, a term that is used to denote people who have been abducted in Balochistan, only for their bodies to be found years later. According to the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons Organisation, these disappearances have been carried out at the behest of the Pakistani Government and its powerful ISI intelligence agency – charges that have been denied.
Sabeen Mahmud was a vocal activist in addressing these forced disappearances: whether it was in her work or in her activism. In killing her, the message is clear: that the freedom of speech and expression, that the freedom to be vigilant and to question the authorities for things that are wrong, can be silenced by brutal repression. In killing her, the idea was to send a warning to the politically vocal communities that denounce misconduct and demand enforcement of rights and equality, that their voices can be silenced, too.
By itself, Balochistan is considerably backward in terms of its economy, and has social indices that reflect a bad state of affairs in health and education. Pakistan’s armed forces have battled the separatists through protracted ground and air operations, and the ongoing conflict has suffocated many parts of the region from the rest of Pakistan.
One of the common response strategies to political dissent has often tended towards oppression and silencing the communities that seek answers to uncomfortable questions. Sabeen Mahmud’s murder is a reflection of the same kind of thinking, and the manifestation of an oppressive strategy. While this is not an examination of the right and wrong side to separatism in Balochistan, the allied right to seek a government out for information, and to stand as vigilantes in the face of oppressive misconduct cannot be sacrificed at the altar of policy.
In silencing a voice that stands for what is right, the path chosen is not very different from what the Taliban chose to do, with Malala Yousufzai.