The Lahore University of Management Sciences or LUMS, a leading private university in Pakistan, says it was forced to cancel an academic discussion on human rights in Balochistan, “due to state intervention“.
According to a LUMS faculty member who spoke to PakVoices, a delegation from Pakistan's top spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) “presented a letter calling for cancellation of the talks. They said that Balochistan is a sensitive issue and that the moot could be used to malign Pakistan.”
Balochistan, Pakistan's largest, least populated and poorest province is witnessing its fifth separatist movement since 1947. Public discussions on Balochistan's war are rare. Nationalists think silence on Balochistan is their patriotic duty, others self-censor out of fear of Pakistan's powerful military. But few really understand what is going on in the southwestern province, because media coverage and reporting from there is thin.
What we do know is that armed Baloch nationalists are seeking independence from Pakistan, and Pakistan's armed intelligence operatives are trying to suppress them and unarmed political activists, sometimes through extrajudicial “forced disappearances”. The government maintains that separatists are funded by “outside forces”. Various sectarian and Islamist militias also use the area for recruitment training to fight wars in Iran and Afghanistan, both of which border Balochistan. These groups also launch attacks within Pakistan. Since 2001, Shia Hazaras in Balochistan, have routinely been targeted by militant groups.
The roundtable on remapping justice in Balochistan, organised by the Department of Humanities and Social Science at LUMS consisted of academics and human rights activists including I.A. Rehman, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). According to the HRCP, since 2010, the bodies of hundreds of Balochistan’s “missing people” have turned up dead bearing torture marks. In 2013 alone, 116 bodies were found across the province, 87 of which were identified by families who accused Pakistan’s security agencies of abducting their loved ones.
The panel also included Mama Qadeer, a 72-year old Baloch who led the 700 kilometre non-violent long-march from Balochistan to the capital Islamabad to speak up against forced disappearances, and Farzana Majeed, the general secretary of International Voices for the Baloch Missing Persons. Last month, Farzana Majeed and Mama Qadeer were prevented from traveling outside Pakistan to attend a human rights conference in the US.
A change.org petition has been started by Taimur Rehman, a faculty member of LUMS:
We, as students, staff and faculty at LUMS, are most concerned about this cancellation, and the gross lack of democratic freedom and political pluralism that it manifests. It is all the more unacceptable that Balochistan has witnessed important human rights violations for the past decades, notably enforced disappearance of citizens. Persecution of religious minorities has also become commonplace in Balochistan, which has led to migration by non-Muslims and minority Muslim sects in large numbers to other regions of the country as well as abroad. The targeting of the Shia Hazaras of Balochistan is one of the most violent and persistent persecution of any community.
Rehman is also the lead singer of a social-justice oriented band Laal. Rehman says he was forced to remove a status update about the cancellation of the event from Laal's popular Facebook page, because he received “warnings” from Facebook. Rehman's page was taken down twice by Facebook last year, allegedly on directives of the Pakistan government. Rehman told Global Voices that “the ban was an attempt to demotivate Laal’s efforts to spread awareness about freedom of speech and social justice.”
Tanqeed, a left-wing social and political magazine reports that the LUMS faculty say they repeatedly tried to email a press release to editors and journalists about the cancelled event, but for unknown reasons the press release has “not gone through on e-mail to those it was sent to”. Tanqeed reproduces the press release here:
In short, a serious, informed, academic debate on Balochistan is not only important, it is urgently needed to address the issues that adversely affect the state of Pakistan today. After the Peshawar attack in December 2014, the government vowed to put Pakistan back on the track of the rule of law and the respect for human rights. Informed debate on the human rights issues affecting Pakistan is a precondition thereof. Sadly, today, the State did not allow this to happen.
Twitter seems to be divided on this issue. Many protested the cancellation of the event.
— Nudrrat Khawaja (@NudrratKhawaja) April 8, 2015
— beena sarwar (@beenasarwar) April 8, 2015
— MIR (@MirSanaullah) April 8, 2015
A Twitter user tagged the chief military spokesman Asim Bajwa asking:
— Mehlab (@mehsheikh) April 8, 2015
However, some defended such measures:
— Hadiya Shah (@hadiyashah1) April 9, 2015
— Fatima Ali (@FatimaAli52) April 9, 2015
One Twitter user even brought up the Pakistani Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah:
Rest assured after seeing #ShameOnLUMS trend on top, LUMS will definitely rethink about inviting Mullah Fazlullah as guest speaker next time
— Farhan Khan Virk (@FarhanKVirk) April 8, 2015