Beena Sarwar is a Pakistani journalist working on human rights, media freedom and peace issues.
I first heard of Raza Mahmood Khan when he went missing on Dec. 2. He has not been heard from since.
His case has many similarities to that of Zeenat Shahzadi, who disappeared in August 2015. Her recovery in October this year was cause for jubilation — but not for long. She has yet to be brought before a judge or get her statement recorded. Authorities are tight-lipped about her whereabouts, and frightened family members will only say she is being treated at a medical facility.
Their apparent crimes? Working for improved relations with India. There is a political consensus in Pakistan for this goal that many political and social activists, writers, journalists, artists, and others openly support.
What makes Khan and Shahzadi vulnerable is that they do not operate from positions of privilege or as part of larger networks.
Both were picked up in bustling Lahore, capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province. Khan was taken from his rented room, Shahzadi from a bus stop. Both from humble, rural backgrounds, they were the first in their families to attend college. Although active on social media, their posts were innocuous. But their views of India — which they saw not as an enemy but as a neighbor with fellow humans and similar problems — ran contrary to Pakistan’s dominant ideological-security narrative.
These young people with no social capital or strong support systems apparently pose a bigger security threat than the organizations that openly support militants, have a huge online presence and go door to door handing out periodicals advocating violent jihad against India.
Pakistan is fighting the Taliban on the western border militarily and conducting ideological warfare through slick music videos, feature films and armies of social media trolls.
Social media, providing a digital window to the outside world and a platform for wider viewership, is, in fact, a new battleground. In January, five social media activists went missing. Released after a few weeks, three fled abroad and have spoken of the torture they endured. Their accounts give rise to fears for Khan’s life. A fourth, still in Pakistan, has maintained silence, which is the pattern for other recovered missing persons. The fifth remains missing.
Pakistan’s security establishment says its military tactics are succeeding. But the gains are short-term. Along the line, casualties of war include due process and rule of law, with killings and enforced disappearances on the rise.
The state must charge, try and prosecute criminal actions, regardless of who is behind them or whom they target.
What religious militants, nationalists and peace activists have in common is that they challenge — although from different perspectives and through different means — Pakistan’s dominant ideological-security state narrative.
Shahzadi and Khan symbolize how peace has been mainstreamed beyond intellectual circles. One major factor behind this phenomenon is the 2010 launch of Aman Ki Asha (“Hope for Peace”), a platform for people-to-people dialogue started by Pakistan’s largest media group and its Indian counterpart. (I work editorially with Aman Ki Asha.)
Another factor is the rise of social media. Access to other perspectives and to different versions of history and politics builds bridges — even with “the enemy.” The number of new friendships formed daily on Facebook between India and Pakistan averages more than 2.5 million.
All this has a ripple effect. Social media users are more connected and visible. And this makes them more vulnerable.
When she went missing, Shahzadi had been working on the case of a young Indian, Hamid Ansari, who went missing in Pakistan in November 2012. Obtaining power of attorney from Ansari’s mother in Mumbai, she pursued the case with Pakistan’s judicial Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances. Her efforts led to the commission’s unprecedented inclusion of an Indian national, Ansari, on its roster.
Pakistan denied any knowledge of Ansari’s whereabouts until January 2016. Security agencies finally admitted he was in their custody, and they produced him before a military court that sentenced him to three years in prison for espionage.
The commission is hearing the cases of more than 1,400 missing persons, mostly from the restive province of Balochistan. Baloch students have recently even gone missing from Karachi University. Ironic that Khan and Shahzadi, who spoke up for missing people, have been disappeared.
The security state has long targeted progressive Pakistani politicians, poets, journalists and activists. Twin accusations of blasphemy and treason have become an additional silencing tool; both can spark lone-wolf attacks, such as those that killed Punjab governor Salman Taseer and young social entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud.
What’s new is the targeting of peace activists from ordinary backgrounds. The phenomenon signals a growing desperation to control the narrative on the military, religion and India.
This is not just about Raza Khan. It is also about reclaiming spaces for a more pluralistic, inclusive discourse of peace. The story reverberates beyond Pakistan to other areas where such tactics are used to silence dissent.