LAHORE: We've seen them holding up placards around the rim of old Liberty Chowk shouting slogans, or organising talks and lectures by professors, poets and artists across the city; heard them share their ideas for peaceful coexistence and an emancipatory vision for society. But when you see civil society activists campaigning for the release of one of their own, it is a sight so pitiable and terrifying that it leaves one numb with shock. If activists are no longer safe in their own homes, would it, perhaps, be better to cow down, be silent like ‘they’ want you to?
“But we will not be silenced,” Sarah Suhail, a lawyer and activist, announces at a press conference organised last Friday to demand the return of Raza Khan, a civil society activist who went missing from his apartment on Dec 2. As activists from a broad spectrum of concerns take turns to condemn Raza’s enforced disappearance, a steely sense of resolve settles upon them. “We will use every single platform we have available to agitate and raise a voice for our friend,” says Diep Syeda, another well-known activist from Lahore.
The missing man’s brother shares his pain and a plea for his release. He is interrupted by a journalist who says that where there is fire, there is smoke. Surely there must have been something suspicious about having connections with India, he suggests.
There are many social entrepreneurs and activists who join civil society groups hoping for some form of social and economic mobility, says Raheemul Haq, a friend of Raza’s and an activist who’s worked alongside him for quite some time. “But Raza was not like that.”
Raza, who is approaching his 40s, hails from a village near Kasur where his father is a mid-level farmer. One of his nephews shares that his family always talks about the time when Raza, as a student, won second position in all of Kasur district for Urdu calligraphy. “Everyone talks about what an intelligent and diligent student he was,” the nephew says.
Raza left his home in 2002 and came to Lahore after completing his Intermediate studies. He worked at pharmacies to support himself, educated himself about politics, and continued further education on his own. “In a way, he represents the lower-middle class bachelor who arrives in Lahore looking for work and sustenance and develops a consciousness about politics. His is a story many can relate to,” says Raheem.
Raza was the general secretary of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Punjab youth wing during the 2009 ‘lawyers movement’. His younger brother, Hamid Nasir, says that Raza was a fiery activist who believed in democracy and power to the people. While he left the PTI later for ideological reasons, he never stopped working for a progressive and peaceful society. He completed his bachelor’s degree privately and got himself enrolled in evening classes at the Punjab University’s Master’s in Gender Studies.
His colleague and friend Aroon Arthur shares that Raza had been mapping the Lahore Canal for the past two weeks for a project the Punjab Horticultural Authority had given them to decorate the canal around spring 2018. The contract for the beautification of the canal in spring next year was given to the Awami Art Collective, an initiative of which Raza was a part. “None of this was NGO work,” explains Raheem. “These were initiatives that we started with our own funds. Raza was a whole-timer in that way.”
As convener of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a platform to further the cause of peace between India and Pakistan, Raza was involved in collecting paintings and letters drawn up by schoolchildren around the themes of peace and coexistence. The paintings were published in calendar form.
He was also involved in activism in Kasur, over the Orange Line Metro Train issue, and was trying to convince the government to adopt a plan for urban forests. In 2015, Raza was at the vigil at Liberty Chowk to mark the death anniversary of ex-governor Salmaan Taseer when some hooligans beat them up. Raza was involved in several programmes of community uplift, Raheem continues, “he was never greedy. He was an activist through and through.”
Lawyers present on the panel cite the Constitutional provisions protecting civil rights. The plea is as heart-rending as it is desperate. Raza is the seventh civil society activist to go missing from his home this year. While the six activists who were picked up earlier this year returned to their homes within two months, there is a general feeling now is that perhaps enough is enough. On Facebook and Twitter, there is talk of a recent crackdown on multiple pages celebrating the diversity of association, thought and expression in the country. Many pages have been shut down while their moderators have been threatened.
“We protest against the prevailing environment of fear, silencing and coercion. We request the government to take note and do something,” reads the press release circulated among journalists.
An activist turns to me and says in an assuring tone: “We are idealists. We will not cede space. We will not be silenced.”
Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2017