Free all activists – Pakistan’s war against civil society
Since January 4, five well known bloggers and social media activists have gone missing in Pakistan. They are the poet and social activist Salman Haider, who teaches at Fatima Jinnah University in Rawalpindi, social activist Samar Abbas and the social media bloggers Aasim Saeed, Ahmad Waqas Goraya and Ahmed Raza Naseer. Salman disappeared on his way home while driving on the Islamabad expressway, the others were abducted from Lahore and Shekupura.
While state agencies claim they were kidnapped by Islamist groups or goons, the abductions all clearly carry the signs of the ISI, Pakistan’s feared secret service. It is true that the missing activists have been very vocal against sectarianism and religious fundamentalism in the past and their writings in defence of the rights of individuals and minorities have gone viral.
But they are not the Indian agents that the tabloid press labels them and neither are they just secular liberals. In fact, they are Pakistani leftists who frequently stand up for the rights of Pakistan’s national minorities and condemn the state's countless military operations.
Those operations are formally declared to be part of the “War on Terror” but actually they are aimed at controlling the population and the national minorities in the provinces that the state and, in particular the Punjabi ruling class, economically exploit. Verses about missing Baloch “friends”, as in a poem by Salman Haider last year, are seen as an important threat to the state's nationalist chauvinism. By making the connection between their criticism of strategic projects like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC, which crosses Balochistan, and its effect on the livelihood of the working poor, they build links to the oppressed classes and the mass of workers in the Punjab, too.
Nevertheless, the attempt to create fear and terror, this time in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated, economically and politically better off province, has created unrest amongst many. Already the topic has become an issue of international interest. The Interior Minister of the Pakistani Muslim League saw himself forced to say in parliament that "This government is not in the business of disappearing people and we will not tolerate such disappearances while we are in power". Both chambers of parliament have condemned the disappearances and demanded investigations. While this indicates a split within the ruling class itself, it also reveals the hypocrisy of the ruling PML(N) that brought forward the new criminal code on “cyber crime” as well as other laws that restrict the freedom of speech and give the executive more powers.
Currently, the unrest is propelled by fear. It is the fear that circumstances could be created in Punjab that already exist in other provinces. The only force in society with the potential to challenge the repressive apparatus and the military is the working class, the urban and rural poor. The Liberalism that several people have called for in the debates of the last two weeks is no answer to the current problem. Although parliamentary and even governmental denunciations of the disappearances can create some space in which the Left can manoeuvre, those are the bodies which will shy away first, and run back into the arms of the military again if there are serious mobilisations and self-activity in solidarity with the missing activists amongst Pakistan’s oppressed classes. Nevertheless, this is the only way forward and is the road the Pakistani left should take.
The left parties and organisations should form a United Front to demand the release of the missing activists. Rallies and meetings should be organised within communities, workplaces and trade unions, wherever the left has access, to explain how the disappearances of the bloggers are connected to the daily repression of the state in the working class communities. The current situation is very dangerous but it also creates opportunities for fraternisation between the oppressed of different provinces and for socialists to win over radical intellectuals who are fed up with state oppression. The case of Wahid Baloch, who went missing but was released towards the end of 2016, after intense protests, shows that resistance can be victorious.
The international left, of course, has a special duty in covering issues like these, giving a voice to the Pakistani left and working class where it is hindered from raising it in public. The League for the Fifth International proudly takes on this task and calls on other organisations to support the cause of the Pakistani left.
* Release Salman Haider, Samar Abbas, Aasim Saeed, Ahmad Waqas Goraya and Ahmed Raza Naseer
* Release all political prisoners and disappeared people, for the compensation of the families whose relatives never returned.
* Repeal all laws against the freedom of press and expression, down with the Cyber Crime Act and the current Blasphemy Laws.
* The kidnappers need to face charges for abduction. For the investigation and publication of all cases of state repression by councils of trade unions, left parties and the respective communities.
* For an end to all anti-terror laws and laws that allow the state to unjustly and without warrant prosecute and arrest people.
* For the right to build self-defence organisations against repression and harassment.