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In a letter to his mother soon after he was incarcerated by fascists in the 1920s, Antonio Gramsci, reflecting on the political and cultural age of his time, described it as the age of "iron and fire". This was not the moment for sentimentality and softness, he told her.

Gramsci was perhaps referring to the imminent threat of a fascist takeover of Europe. While he wrote it in an entirely different context, the phrase captures, to a certain extent, the essence of what we are witnessing right now in the Land of the Pure.

Number of activists and bloggers critical of the prevailing socio-political and religious discourse, and state policies, including the poet and academic Salman Haider, have been ‘mysteriously’ missing for the past few days.

Authorities have said nothing definitive about their whereabouts so far, but the pattern of the disappearances points to an existing trend.

The story of missing persons in the peripheries, and Balochistan in particular, has been known for a long time. Sometimes, these disappearances are justified by terming them ‘RAW-funded’ ethno-nationalists who are out to dismantle Pakistan.

But this appellation isn't just reserved for Baloch nationalists and other political groups; the plague has spread to the internet where regular citizens critical of the prevailing order are being targeted in urban areas.

From Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Habib Jalib, clamping down on dissenting poets has been a Pakistani tradition. The practice has now been extended to the internet, which could mark the beginning of a new chapter in this shameful tale.

We should not take this lightly. This kind of aversion to critical thought, ideas, and speech is characteristic of totalitarianism. Though Pakistan is not a totalitarian state, targeting intellectuals is a disturbing trend and has dire consequences for society. The country has already been suffering from its effects for a long time.

Salman Haider and other missing comrades represent the polar opposite of what power, ideological apparatuses and forces of obscurantism symbolise. If Pakistan is to have a better future, we need more activists, story-tellers and poets like them.

Our response must not be one of indifference. Putting aside feelings of softness and sentimentality, this is not the time to mourn, but to act, to organise and demand for the immediate release of the bloggers, as well as an end to such targeting of intellectuals.

Those who have come out on the streets in protest have been brave. Those who are writing blogs and opinion columns are courageous.

We need to maintain the pressure, and hopefully the voices raised would be enough to secure a safe and quick return of the abducted.

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