Rights groups say blasphemy allegations against disappeared activists aim to silent dissent for good.
In January, five Pakistani activists disappeared. Some were picked up from their homes, others from their place of work. One man went missing while searching for a house to rent for his family.
Their crimes remain unclear. Roughly three weeks later, four of them were released, but not charged with an offence. Some have spoken of being tortured by Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence agencies. Others have chosen not to speak at all, bound to silence by those who abducted them.
For those who have spoken out, the reason for their abduction appears to be that they were linked to Facebook pages or social media accounts that were criticising the military’s policies and the religious right, or for espousing the cause of persecuted minorities.
Mohammed Hanif is a Pakistani journalist and writer who has been nominated for several awards, including the prestigious Man Booker prize for his debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, in 2008.
He has reported extensively on minority rights, as well as enforced disappearances in Pakistan’s campaign against separatist fighters in the country’s southwestern Balochistan province.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the recently held Karachi Literature Festival, he talked about the shrinking freedoms in mainstream and social media in Pakistan, the role of liberal voices and the state of human rights in Balochistan.
Al Jazeera: Social media, at least when it started off, allowed a lot more democratic space for dissidents and those with a liberal or minority point of view. However, it is increasingly making them vulnerable to state surveillance and reprisals. How do you see the transformation of social media and what lessons have you drawn from the goings-on in Pakistan and other countries?
Mohammed Hanif: I think social media has thrown many of our lazy assumptions into question.
After all, what is a dissident? Someone sitting with a gun on a mountain or someone tweeting bad poetry?
What is a liberal? Someone who wants to be saved from both but wants all the freedom to tell us what is really wrong with this world?
And aren’t social media users in Pakistan actually a minority as compared with the ones who can’t afford smartphones or can’t read or write? Social media in Pakistan is a love-fest and a lynch mob.
I think the state realises its potential and it tried to send a message by kidnapping some activists in Pakistan.
The perverse thing about social media is that nobody really knew these guys who were picked up, but after they were picked up, we all knew about them.
They were either our potential liberators or certified traitors. When luvvies and lynch mob collide on the internet, who needs facts?
It’s all very entertaining and also reassuring that something very new can confirm our oldest prejudices.
Al Jazeera: India is seen as a land of opportunity for Pakistani film artists and musicians. Why have Pakistani writers – novelists, essayists, commentators in English, Urdu, Punjabi etc – not been able to exploit the opportunity in the same fashion? Or do we not hear about it as much?
Hanif: Every Pakistani writer I know has been published in India, translated into Indian languages and has done the festival circuit.
There’s lots more money at stake when singers or actors get banished, so we hear more about it.
Once or twice Indian right-wingers have tried to force the bookshops to stop selling books by Pakistani authors, but that reeked of desperation.
Go and burn albums of Pakistani musicians if you want to make an impact. Who cares about books anyway?
Al Jazeera: You have written in The New York Times deploring the way India-Pakistan issues are handled by jingoistic Indian TV channels and their Pakistani counterparts. Do you think this trend has to do with authentic ultra-nationalistic passion or is it a symptom of failing media business models on both sides of the border?
Hanif: I think passions are real. You don’t kill over a million people as we did during the partition or fight four and a half wars without passion.
Every few years comes a time when it seems we are getting a bit less passionate.
We can trade tomatoes and onions and cheaper heart bypasses across the border. But then someone rekindles our murderous passions.
I don’t think media businesses on both sides are failing; they are transforming into more intelligent monsters. Is there more money in peace or is there more money in war?
Al Jazeera: What can the writers and intellectuals of Pakistan and India do to wrest back public discourse from the ultranationalists and hardline politicians in order to inject good sense, goodwill and a spirit of unity among the peoples of common rich heritage?
Hanif: I think maybe they can start by going on about common rich heritage.
We kind of lived together and killed each other for centuries.
Our common rich heritage is very contested and we should continue to contest that.
Writers and intellectuals from both sides have been hugging each other at festivals and conferences and in music collaborations.
They should continue doing that but let’s not live in the illusion that they can erase an inch of barbed wire on our borders.
Al Jazeera: Do you think Pakistan’s liberal-secular forces are strong enough to confront the new set of challenges they are facing from illiberal elements of the state? Leaving the country for a haven abroad may be necessary for some people, but does it really advance their cause?
Hanif: I think the first cause is to stay alive. So if someone is lucky enough that they can leave the country, let’s not grudge them.
Let’s not say they have betrayed some cause. Let’s not get into definitions. But I tend to believe Pakistan liberals have had a lot of power, still do.
I think instead of doing a hard day’s liberal work, they like to point out the illiberal elements in the state. I do feel that the illiberal elements you blame provide more of a sense of community here.
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Liberals just sit by themselves and fume over “these people”, but where did they come from? Oh, OK, let’s blame General Zia-ul-Haq.
Al Jazeera: Do you think the advent of a Hindu nationalist government in India and the Indian security crackdown in Kashmir have, in an indirect way, influenced the political and security climate in Pakistan?
Hanif: Modi is God’s gift to the Pakistani security establishment. And what you call a crackdown in Kashmir is a campaign of mass blinding of a population, as Kashmiri writer Mirza Waheed has written.
It has never happened in human history.
Al Jazeera: Your second novel revolves around the life of a person from Pakistan’s minorities. What have your observations and experiences been with the minority communities that prompted you to pick this subject? How drastically do you think the space and voice for minorities has shrunk in Pakistan?
Hanif: My experiences are quite limited. I have this Christian property-dealer friend who has written essays and books about Pakistani Christian heroes.
In order to prove his community’s patriotism, he has to write these glorious stories about Christian officers and men who fought in our wars against India.
I don’t know why Azam Miraj should have to prove his patriotism when his forefathers and my forefathers have lived on the same land and spoken the same language for centuries.
He now has to worry about what bits of newspaper he can throw into the trash can because, you know, sometimes newspapers have bits of sacred texts.
Al Jazeera: Do you think the recent spate of arrests of activists shows a growing intolerance towards any criticism of the state, the establishment and their policies towards religious extremism? What role, if any, does mainstream media play in vilifying these liberal voices?
Hanif: I feel that the state is tired and jaded. Mainstream media and social media are not that different: a bit of a love fest, a bit of a lynch mob. It’s the same old game.
A businessman playing a politician, politicians playing the media, an intelligence-agency type trying to tell everyone what to do.
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In social media, small voices sometimes get amplified, and whenever that happens we are back to the old-fashioned games where we have to figure out who can kidnap someone, or who can kill and never be held accountable.
Al Jazeera: Pakistan regularly makes the list of the most dangerous places for journalists, and Balochistan in particular has been termed the graveyard for journalists. Can you share what your interactions with people in Balochistan, particularly journalists, writers and activists, revealed about the province’s place in the media? Do you see any hope for improvement in the environment for journalists in Balochistan and Pakistan?
Hanif: The grand old man of Balochi literature, Ghani Parwaz, said it about why we don’t hear more Baloch voices: fear of the state and prejudice from the people outside of Balochistan who seem to believe that it’s a land of gold and copper and gas.
Journalists in Balochistan have been killed for simply reporting that someone else has been killed.
I have seen parents worry if their kids have done high school and picked up any politics. If you are a literate and political Baloch, your life expectancy automatically comes down drastically.
But I am told things are getting better. If you are a journalist in Pakistan, you should thank your stars that you are not Baloch.