Crossing red lines in Quetta

Updated 28 Oct 2020

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IN Quetta, the Pakistan Democratic Movement ventured into forbidden territory. At its Gujranwala and Karachi rallies, the PDM leaders highlighted the people’s economic hardships and the misery caused by skyrocketing prices of essential food items and medicines, and rightly so. But it was at the mammoth gathering in Balochistan’s capital last Sunday that the speakers also addressed the issue of enforced disappearances, and gave voice to the grief of the families of the missing.

By calling Adeeba Qambrani — a young Baloch woman whose three brothers have been disappeared — to the stage, Maryam Nawaz put a face to that grief. ”No longer will husbands and brothers go missing, people of Balochistan,” she vowed. PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif said: “I am aware of the Baloch people’s problems, Nawaz Sharif knows [...] the missing persons issue is still there. I feel pain when I see the victims.”

In political terms, bringing up the issue of enforced disappearances in such a no-holds-barred way is a gesture of defiance to the powers that be, indicating the opposition alliance’s willingness to cross what were hitherto considered ‘red lines’. There is also no shortage of cynics who decried the PDM’s move as insincere and opportunistic. They point out that people went missing in Balochistan during the PPP and PML-N governments too; mass graves had also been discovered in the province. Both points of view have merit.

It is nevertheless significant that the problem of enforced disappearances is being raised from the national stage by a section of the top political leadership. The anguish that the families of the missing endure every day, not knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead, was there for the entire country to see. Had MNA Mohsin Dawar been able to participate, it would have further underscored the extent of the problem, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa believed to be the staging ground for the highest number of enforced disappearances.

Any country where individuals can be spirited away in brazen violation of their fundamental right to due process and security of person is a democracy in name alone. The Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has only succeeded to some extent in tracing the whereabouts of the cases that have come before it. It has failed spectacularly in the other, equally important, aspect of its mandate; that is, “to fix responsibility on individuals or organisations responsible”.

While no part of the country is now immune to this despicable practice, highlighting the issue in Balochistan is particularly fitting because enforced disappearances have further deepened the sense of alienation among its people. Despite the vast resources that lie underneath its soil, the majority of Baloch live in poverty, the many promises made to them of a better future still unfulfilled. BNP-M’s Akhtar Mengal asked at the Quetta rally whether the Baloch consider themselves equal citizens of Pakistan. Sadly, there can be only one answer.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2020