Pervez Hoodbhoy


Had last week’s kidnappings of bloggers and social media activists happened in Balochistan, it would have been a non-event. But all five abductions happened in Punjab — and now the authorities are feeling some heat.


Salman Haider — a lecturer at the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi — was intercepted while driving on Islamabad Expressway on his way home. Others were picked up from Lahore and near about. They include social activist Samar Abbas, social media bloggers Aasim Saeed, Ahmad Waqas Goraya, and Ahmed Raza Naseer — who suffers from polio. Their whereabouts are unknown as of the time of this writing. Still others are said to be missing with families too fearful to register formal complaints.


These near-simultaneous abductions required complex operations, suggesting involvement of some secret state agency. Apparently, there were no prior direct threats, no demand for ransom, and no evidence of the grisly violence used by jihadist groups. And, as the phone calls made to the families showed, the abductors were dismissive of their identities being traced.


Just a little thought shows the level of resources and planning that such actions demand.

First, tracking mobile internet users is not for novices. Only specialised cyber tools can uncover the identities of those anonymously operating a Facebook page or website. This requires skills, equipment, and persistence. Since IP numbers — which identify a particular device — are alterable and wireless networks can be accessed from anywhere, tracking records are needed. Only the authorities have such data acquisition facilities.

The kidnappings are designed to eliminate the tiny sliver of cyberspace activists currently have.


Second, anticipating that certain materials could be deleted, selective screen shots of the pre-takeover content of Facebook pages were taken. These were later released for circulation with the goal of arousing public anger. Tellingly, after the user accounts were hacked into and taken over, the earlier content was deleted and replaced with pro-military and pro-extremist rants.


Third, extensive tracking of individual movements was needed. In addition to physical shadowing, this requires tapping of telephones and email. The case of Goraya, a former Quaid-e-Azam University student currently studying in the Netherlands, is particularly significant. He had briefly returned to attend his sister’s wedding and was nabbed shortly thereafter. The deep state had bided its time, watching and waiting for him to return to Pakistan.


Suspicions of official involvement were not allayed when Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan declared that he had been in touch with the intelligence agencies. Subsequently he was “hopeful that Dr Salman Haider would soon be recovered safe and sound”, but made no mention of the others.


How bad are the materials which right-wing and pro-establishment sites are deeming blasphemous and anti-Pakistan? Having glanced at a few pages from FB accounts under the names of ‘Roshni’ and ‘Mochi’, in my opinion some remarks by their visitors placed here and there were clearly stupid and irresponsible. Another called ‘Bhensa’ was outrageous and offensive. Nevertheless, to abduct its alleged operators is a travesty of justice.


Intemperate and irresponsible web behaviour of young people is induced by the apparent security provided by cyber anonymity. But, disagree as one might with parts of the web content, the fact is that none call for violence — or even hint at its desirability. I could not see any demand for mosques to be closed down, mullahs to be hanged, or calls for violence. An overwhelming majority of posts call for peace, tolerance, freedom of worship, rule of law, an end to repression in Balochistan, action against corruption, etc.


While I have never met Goraya — one of the abductees — I discovered a single email from him addressed to me from four years ago. Writing in his capacity as the international coordinator of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan, his email reads, “We are a group of people who are striving to bring rational thought into Pakistani society. We, like you, do not like the current Talibanisation of our country and are trying to combat that in our own way on the social media by running a forum that is 10,000 strong.”


Salman Haider, a poet of considerable merit, has a large following on social media networks. He writes passionately in Urdu about the need to reclaim space lost to extremism, the brutal targeting of ethnic Hazaras, and the missing persons in Balochistan. Ironically, he too has now joined the ranks of the missing.


Demonised, persecuted, denied space on TV channels and in the Urdu print media, the voices asking for a modern Pakistan and peace with neighboring countries are being increasingly stifled. The recent kidnappings are designed to eliminate the tiny sliver of cyberspace they currently have.


On the other side of the spectrum, full internet freedom is enjoyed by sectarian religious organisations, militant jihadist outfits, and even so-called officially banned organisations. Those representing such mindsets also fill TV channels on political talk shows, and their Urdu newspaper columns accuse all and sundry of being foreign agents and blasphemers. Even those arguing for the release of the abducted activists are being called blasphemers.


Although intelligence agencies are empowered to act where national security is jeopardised, no one has alleged that the abducted activists are dangerous people. Nevertheless, there is a strong feeling that elements within Pakistan’s deep state felt sufficiently outraged to take the law into their own hands and order the disappearances.


But why this anger? Do Pakistanis not know who their true enemy is? Liberal fascists — as they are called in the Urdu media — did not orchestrate the suicide truck bombings that levelled ISI headquarters in Peshawar and Sukkur, the attacks against police academies in Lahore and Quetta, the grisly games played by the Pakistani Taliban with the severed heads of Pakistan Army soldiers, or the horrific massacre of APS students.


The army, police, and Pakistan’s security agencies have paid a terrible price in lives and material at the hands of religious fanatics. Extremist organisations and individuals have declared bloody war upon the state. Against the culture of intolerance, corruption, and militancy that is ruining Pakistan, only a few brave souls have dared to speak out. It is insane to crack down on them.


(Dawn – 14 January 2017)

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