Right to be heard

Published March 21, 2022
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

IT is unfortunate that even demanding the most basic right — the right to life — has become an act of dissent in Pakistan. Voicing concern over being unable to live peacefully and being subjected to enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, profiling and harassment is a natural, reasonable reaction. However, those who do so are deemed ‘dissidents from the margins’. Their intentions are always questioned, the all-time favourite label of ‘treason’ is slapped on them, and they are showcased as the kind of citizens one must keep away from.

This explains the tiny, but growing number of residents in Islamabad who have started to frequent the camp set up outside the National Press Club in Islamabad by the Baloch Students Council, Islamabad. Their demands are simple: release Hafeez Baloch, a student of M.Phil in physics at the prestigious Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, and end racial profiling and harassment at university campuses.

The case of Hafeez Baloch should be a subject of introspection. He secured the second position while pursuing his Master’s degree at the physics department of the University of Balochistan, and was then admitted to Quaid-e-Azam University for an M.Phil in the same subject. His research in high energy physics is titled Semi Leptonic Decay of Lambda B. He also passed the test to become a lecturer in physics in Balochistan as a Grade 18 government employee.

While a student at Quaid-e-Azam University, he was reportedly profiled and harassed. On Feb 8, during a visit to his native village in Khuzdar, Balochistan, masked men in a black vehicle stormed the tuition academy where he was teaching young students, and forcibly took him away in front of his minor pupils. While his family has filed a complaint with the police in Khuzdar, there is still no information regarding Hafeez’s whereabouts.

Why is Hafeez Baloch’s case so important?

Why is this case important?

First, the courage of students who have been camping outside the National Press Club, staging a token hunger strike and refusing to attend classes at Quaid-e-Azam University, must be lauded. While they should be focusing on education, they have been harassed and there is a looming fear of their being profiled and ‘disappeared’. They have taken an important stand so that unarmed, peaceful students are not subjected to such treatment again.

Second, the case of Hafeez highlights thousands of other instances of missing persons from Balochistan where, without any case against them, without having been notified of an alleged crime, and without any trial at court, people are being disappeared and no information is available about their whereabouts. Propagandists on social media present them as ‘terrorists’ who have joined the Baloch insurgency, but why are there no cases against them in the courts if they have broken the law? That is a critical question that the state must address.

Third, despite their genuine grievances, the protesting students, instead of being heard and having their issues resolved, were harassed and beaten and had their phones snatched by Islamabad Police at the Press Club. The police also filed an FIR against the protesting students, the lawyer of Hafeez Baloch advocate Imaan Hazir, and even a journalist covering the protest, Asad Toor. It took the intervention of the Islamabad High Court for the state to agree to withdraw the frivolous FIR. If this is possible in broad daylight in the federal capital, one cannot even imagine what the situation must be in small towns in Balochistan.

Fourth, it is most unfortunate that no government representative met them since the camp began on March 1 until after the Islam­abad High Court was pet­itioned and the chief justice remarked that, rather than the pro­testers, it was seditious of the state to be involved in disappearing students. Human Rig­hts Minister Shir­een Mazari visited the students on March 8 and assured them that the government wou­ld look into the disappearance of Hafeez Bal­och. Since then, there has been no progress. Hafeez is still missing, and the students’ sit-in continues, having entered its 21st day

Meanwhile, a writ petition has been filed in the Islamabad High Court. A complaint with the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has also been registered. More than 8,000 complaints have been filed with the commission since 2011. The bill to criminalise enforced disappearances thro­ugh amendments to the PPC and CrPC was passed by the National Assembly but has yet to go through the Senate, where it ironically went missing. Even the bill proposes to criminalise ‘false accusations’ of disappearances, an allegation all too easy to hurl by those involved in the business of disappearing.

Students in Pakistan should be made to feel secure instead of being threatened by the state as they pursue their dream of education peacefully. They should be granted the right to due process rather than being disappeared.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.
Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2022

Opinion

Editorial

Misery and despair
Updated 12 Jul, 2024

Misery and despair

Is a life lived happily and respectably too much to ask for from your country?
Temporary extension
12 Jul, 2024

Temporary extension

THE cabinet’s decision to allow ‘legal’ Afghan refugees — meaning those with Proof of Registration cards —...
Anti-smog strategy
12 Jul, 2024

Anti-smog strategy

BY acknowledging that smog is a year-round problem, and not just a winter issue, the Punjab government has taken the...
Population crisis
Updated 11 Jul, 2024

Population crisis

Moreover, successful programmes, such as Lady Health Workers, can be utilised to provide information and reproductive health services to women.
Taxing agriculture
11 Jul, 2024

Taxing agriculture

OUR inability to collect sufficient tax revenue is resulting in persistently high fiscal deficits, forcing ...
Negligence at PHOTA
11 Jul, 2024

Negligence at PHOTA

THE impression that the state is being careless towards aspects of organ trade control is damaging. Recent news ...