No quarter for the Baloch?

Updated April 16, 2015


MUCH has been written about the ban on the LUMS event (to which the writer was invited as a speaker) about the Balochistan situation and more needs to be said about this extraordinary affair as it touches on the very basic principles of the rule of law and the citizens’ key fundamental rights.

Media reports and statements made by responsible parties have confirmed that a discussion on the various issues contributing to unrest in Balochistan and causing anxieties to the civil society was banned under a written order handed over to the LUMS authorities by two men who claimed to belong to the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Read| Footprints: Post-gag, the talk heats up

It is generally believed that the reason for the drastic action was the inclusion of Mama Qadeer in the list of speakers.

Now, Mama Qadeer is a well-known troublemaker.

The charges against him include his failure to stop his son from joining a nationalist group and his agitation against that son’s disappearance, under the banner of Voice of Baloch Missing Persons. Further, he took his five-year-old grandson to see the bullet-ridden body of his father (Qadeer’s son) and tried to teach the child to live by the truth.

Also without enjoying the clout of Imran Khan or Tahirul Qadri he staged a long march from Quetta to Islamabad and has been staging ‘dharna’ at Karachi, Quetta and Islamabad.

The LUMS incident raises several issues related to human rights.

He also ingratiated himself with novelist Mohammed Hanif, TV anchor Hamid Mir, and the riff-raff of civil society to spread tales of the Baloch people’s suffering.

He was prevented by our alert law-enforcement agencies from going abroad and poisoning foreign minds against all those responsible for making Balochistan an oasis of peace and tranquillity.

Also read: LUMS under pressure

These are serious offences and Mama Qadeer could well be sentenced to capital punishment on five or six counts, though one does not know how a person can be hanged to death more than once.

But until Mama Qadeer is hauled up before a court of law and is found guilty nobody has a right to interfere with his fundamental rights.

However, the LUMS moot was not confined to an address by Mama Qadeer. The reported refusal of the ban agents to allow the function under a revised framework indicates that the cause for action was the very idea of discussing Balochistan and that raises several issues related to human rights.

Also read: A thought for Mama Qadir?

Can a ban on discussing the causes of Balochistan’s people’s protracted misery be justified? What is the message such legally indefensible steps send to the people of Balochistan except for telling them that they deserve no quarter?

The officials concerned apparently did not quote any law in support of their edict. Can a lawful activity be interfered with through an order that neither cites a law to justify it nor explains the status of the authority issuing the firman?

Could the LUMS authorities protest to the government against the apparently unlawful restrictions? Perhaps this option was foreclosed by the frantic efforts made by the federal and Punjab authorities to ensure compliance with the peremptory orders. That changed the context. The two governments superseded the intelligence agency as the principal violators of the law and citizens’ rights; instead of protecting the educational institution and all those associated with the discussion against patently unlawful orders they became complicit to the offence.

Several other rights were trampled on: the right of an academic institution to inform its students of the facts of life in their country and enable them to contribute to a solution of national issues; the right of a civil society group to hold a closed-door debate, on private premises; and, finally, the right of the people to freedom of association and expression.

An important issue is the decision of the intelligence agency to intervene directly. The normal procedure, one supposes, is that if any intelligence agency perceives a threat to the national interest it approaches the administration to take appropriate legal action. Any departure from this procedure will create problems all around — for citizens, for the government, and for the intelligence agencies themselves.

This was one of the issues taken up by the three-member judicial commission of 2010 that had been constituted to deal with disappearances. The commission rejected as unacceptable the arrest of citizens/suspects by intelligence agencies and chastised the police for joining such actions. The principle invoked by the commission to bar the intelligence agencies from exercising powers they did not possess is applicable to the instant case too. Enforcing a ban on a peaceful, academic discussion, that no competent authority had declared unlawful, was an unwarranted encroachment on the administration’s rights and a clear transgression of the agency’s powers.

The central issue that the incident has again brought out is the urgency of making appropriate laws to govern the functioning of all intelligence agencies that are operating without legal sanction. Four years have passed since the 2010 commission called for a law to rein in the intelligence agencies. A similar plea was made by Justice Saqib Nisar, a senior judge of the Supreme Court, in his report on the case of journalist Saleem Shahzad’s disappearance and murder.

The intelligence agencies should welcome the possibility of functioning within the parameters of a clearly defined law. Among other things this will instal an intra-departmental oversight mechanism, improve discipline, and protect the agencies against being blamed for operations they might not be responsible for. Regulation of intelligence agencies’ work by law is as much in their interest as in anybody else’s.

The government’s prevarication on this issue is totally unjustified. It will only underwrite more LUMS-like violations of law and good sense. Even harder it is to justify the public failure to stand up against attacks on fundamental freedoms. A people that cannot rise against injustice have no claim to be counted among the living.

Published in Dawn, April 16th, 2015

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