KARACHI: Looking unusually alert in their khaki half-sleeved shirts and trouser uniforms, Rangers personnel wait in their white vehicle watching people streaming in through the Silver Jubilee gate of Karachi University on a sweltering Wednesday morning. Students and staff members enter the gate in a rushed manner. Regular visitors also assume the same mannerism, some heading towards the seminar on Balochistan that has taken on extraordinary significance primarily for two reasons.
Firstly, the university administration has barred the holding of the seminar because of the “sensitivity of the subject”. And, secondly, it follows a discussion held on the same theme and with the same panellists at T2F, whose director Sabeen Mahmud was killed shortly after the discussion ended on April 24.
Social media was rife with will-they/won’t-they-go-ahead speculation. The night before a statement of support from Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) students and faculty was posted on the event’s Facebook site. A similar discussion was to be held at Lums on ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’ on April 9 but was cancelled reportedly at the behest of an intelligence agency. Text messages were going back and forth between people who wanted to know how they could go inside the university without being stopped by the Rangers.
It is 10:50am and around 60 people are standing outside the old brown door of the arts auditorium, whose access has been denied by the KU administration. A member of the Teachers Against War and Oppression, mobilisers of the gathering, says: “So what if the auditorium is not opened, we’ll do it here,” pointing to a large open-air hall surrounded on two sides by beige brick walls through which one can view swaying trees. The hall, popularly known as arts lobby, has a sloping white roof with white pillars.
The heat is intensifying and the arts lobby swarming with people. Some are sharing notes on how they made it inside. “I told the Rangers that my cousin lived at the university and I was going to meet her,” says an excited medical student. Another, an art gallery curator and former teacher at the KU’s visual arts department, says she used her old faculty card to enter the premises and also brought along her brother and a friend.
The mastermind of the event, Dr Riaz Ahmed, an energetic chemistry professor, puts up a large banner ‘Baloch missing persons and the role of state and society’ with the help of some students. With a smile plastered on his face and moving hastily from one corner to another, Dr Ahmed dashes towards a white bench, stands on it and speaks to the large gathering: “Amid your thunderous applause let us begin the programme. We have come here to struggle and not to mourn.” Someone asks everyone to sit down. “All we are asking is for freedom to discuss and debate at the university.”
The charged professor mocks the university administration: “By disallowing the event to take place at the arts auditorium they have added to the ignominy of Pakistan as all this is going to be reported by the international media.” Some chant slogans of “shame, shame”. “What makes all this more pathetic is we have a democratic government and this is happening under their watch.”
At 10 minutes to 12, the large assembly of people parts to make way for Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed and Mohammad Ali Talpur, who enter the lobby slowly, amid non-stop loud clapping. They are showered with rose petals as they make their way to the makeshift speakers corner.
The programme formally begins with Fateha offered for Waheed-ur-Rehman, Shakeel Auj and Maulana Masood, the recently slain KU professors.
Mama Qadeer, in camel-brown shalwar kameez, clutching prayer beads, lights a candle in memory of Sabeen. Likewise Farzana, in bright magenta shalwar kameez, embellished with characteristic Balochi embroidery, her face wrapped in a floral orange large dupatta, and Mohammad Ali Talpur, a tall man clad in grey shalwar kameez, dark grey waistcoat and mirror-embellished topi, also light candles.
Mama Qadeer begins his speech, reading out from green printouts. “When the PML-N was in opposition it had assured us it would look into the matter. But now that they are in power, they too like the previous governments have continued with the same old tactics against the Baloch. India is being more than ever before blamed for supporting us. But where is the evidence to prove their allegations? The state has been unsuccessful in quelling the movement. Malik [Dr Abdul Malik Baloch] and company have been installed to emasculate our movement. As a result, there is now an increase in operations and forced displacement of people in Balochistan.”
As Mama Qadeer ends his speech, a couple of impassioned young men get up from the audience and say they want to ask Mama Qadeer a couple of questions. One of them waves a blue paper file and says he has a list of missing persons and wants to discuss it. Another one wants to ask about Sabeen. The organisers try to quieten them assuring them their questions will be allowed but later. At this point Dr Ahmed tells the gathering he is not a supporter of Baloch separatism and is against the targeted killing of all the non-Baloch in Balochistan.
Next is Mr Talpur, who connects with the gathering by saying that he, too, studied at the university back in 1969-70. “Why was Sabeen killed? She was always at the forefront of civil rights struggle and believed in defiance. Defiance is contagious and people are scared this virus might become widespread. Why is even one person missing is the fundamental question that needs to be asked.”
Diminutive and soft-spoken Farzana Majeed reads out her speech, which she has penned in English. “I pay rich tributes to Comrade Sabeen. She lives in our hearts and minds forever. Voice of Baloch Missing Persons is the first formal group that is raising the issue of missing persons. More than a year has passed since our march and nothing has changed on ground. We have given up our expectations from the state, media and judiciary. We are now looking at international forums which can ensure the release of missing persons.”
The group is then asked to take out a rally outside the university administration building to register their protest for disallowing them to do the event at the arts auditorium. As the group departs, the impassioned young men shout loudly and say they want their questions to be answered. “We have come all the way from Quetta, we want to know why the BLA and BSO killed our father, brother and sister.” They create such a ruckus that a couple of Rangers personnel take them away to talk to them.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2015