December 24, 2017: The unbearable cost of advocating peace(Daily Times)

Raza Mahmood Khan, a peace activist and a human rights’ defender from Lahore, is missing since December 2. No one knows where he is and why has he been picked up. That such enforced disappearances continue to happen makes a mockery of Pakistan’s constitution and it’s justice system. Raza’s disappearance also exposes the limits of the sham-democracy that we all want to save. The elected governments in Lahore and Islamabad must recover Raza without further delay.

Raza was linked to an India-Pakistan peace initiative called Aghaz-e-Dosti, largely a voluntary and youth-led network for building bridges between the two ‘enemy’ countries. I am fortunate to have made a humble contribution to such efforts before I had to leave Pakistan in 2014. In August 2013, Aghaz-e-Dosti invited me to speak to school children at Indraprastha Girls’ Secondary School in old Delhi when I was there on a book tour. I spent hours with a large group of students who were curious to know about Pakistan and I still remember the eagerness in young minds to imagine a different future of our region. Later in that year, I was invited to launch the Aghaz-e-Dosti Calendar for Peace and Love 2014 with Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy and others in Islamabad

Aghaz-e-Dosti has been working to connect the younger generations of India and Pakistan and their efforts have been enabled by digital technologies. No wonder digital media are seen as a threat. Aman ki Asha (AKA), the earlier initiative for bringing peace-builders together has been intensely defamed in both India and Pakistan. Launched with much fanfare involving the two giant media conglomerates – Jang Group and Times of India – the initiative faced enormous hurdles and invective by hawks in both countries. In Pakistan, it was defamed as a front for Indian intelligence agencies and the hate-India lobbies ensured that the public mind was poisoned about it. In fact, during 2014 when Jang Group was at the receiving end of the security establishment, AKA was cited as evidence of treachery by Jang Group. Ironically, Jang Group was also accused in a blasphemy case. This convergence of blasphemy and hyper-nationalism is a convenient formula to crush dissent and peace activists. But the reality is that AKA has thousands of supporters and many across the border remain committed to its mission.

Thinking of a peaceful future with India is no crime. But the fact that many in Pakistan’s youth – the largest segment of its 207 million inhabitants – are willing to continue the battle for reason, peace and non-violence, is a glimmer of hope

This madness is not limited to Pakistan. Recent developments in India have also betrayed a similar myopia when it comes to Pakistan and even a remote chance of citizen-to-citizen contacts. India’s PM Modi used the similar conspiracy during his election campaign in Gujarat when he castigated Mani Shankar Aiyar (a politician committed to peace and dialogue between the two nations) for inviting Pakistanis to his residence. Right wing media in India continuously peddle hate and influence public opinion against the need to find common ground between the two rival nations and (security obsessed) states. Aman ki Asha and South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) were created to change this. AKA continues to be attacked; and SAFMA is a punching bag for Pakistan’s right wing nationalists as a sell-out. Now Aghaz-e-Dosti is at the receiving end. Which young man or woman would not think twice before participating in its peace-building efforts?

Prior to Raza’s abduction (what else can one call that?), Zeenat Shahzadi, a young journalist, who had been missing since August 2015 was recovered. In October of this year, she came back but she was never presented before a judge and her family is evidently afraid to say anything about her whereabouts now. For two years, she remained ‘missing’ and one cannot even imagine what she went through.

The year 2017 started with the abduction of social media activists including a university professor and poet. These activists were critical of the military and the mullahs. Media frenzy was built up to paint them as blasphemers and traitors.  After many weeks of unlawful detention, the bloggers were released. It was a small victory even though the torture, harassment and grief caused to their families was irreparable. Upon their release, these activists spoke to media and narrated their chilling ordeals. A common line of questioning was if they had links to Indian intelligence agencies and were the latter involved in the propaganda against Islam and Pakistan Army (the two are interchangeable in Islamic Republic).

After months of relentless propaganda that included the most vile brand of TV journalism, shameless politicking, the Federal Investigation Agency has submitted before Islamabad High Court that it could find no evidence of ‘blasphemy’ against the five men. This tainted victory may be a little respite but it will not mean anything unless there is accountability of those who picked up innocent men and those who defamed them on TV screens and media owners who allowed such toxic and life-threatening narratives to be aired. One victim of this frenzy was a young student Mashal Khan who was lynched on false charges of blasphemy. His murder so far remains unpunished.

As a third generation peace activist, Raza is braving the violence that accompanies dissent. Thinking of a peaceful future with India is no crime. But the fact that many in Pakistan’s youth – the largest segment of its 207 million inhabitants – are willing to continue the battle for reason, peace and non-violence is a glimmer of hope.

Raza has joined hundreds of other Pakistani citizens who are ostensibly under unlawful detention for their activities. Pakistan’s Commission on Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has been regularly receiving complaints on the missing persons. Pakistan’s paranoid defenders, its cowardly politicians, selective adjudicators and a pliant media industry continue to allow such transgressions to occur. A few days ago, the government asked 27 international nongovernmental organisations, including those who provide humanitarian services, to close shop.

And then our leaders and analysts ask, why is Pakistan’s image so tarnished?

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