Guest blog from Hajrah Hammad
Islamabad — “…We will not remain silent,” the message read, “We owe it to the people of Balochistan.”
“We owe it to the hundreds found in mass graves. We owe it to the thousands of missing people. We owe it to their families. We owe it to ourselves.”
The Democratic Students’ Alliance, an informal student organisation some of whose members are students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), posted this message on its Facebook page at 7:24pm on Wednesday. The message was posted hours after a talk on the LUMS campus about human rights issues in Balochistan was cancelled allegedly under duress.
The panel discussion titled “Unsilencing Balochistan” was scheduled for Thursday evening and featured, among other speakers, Mama Qadeer, a leader of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP).
The VBMP, which consists of people whose relatives have gone “missing” in Balochistan over the years, has worked for the recovery of Baloch missing persons and justice for the families affected byenforced disappearances.
The enforced disappearances, and discovery of mass graves, are linked with a longstanding conflict between the state and the Baloch people in Pakistan’s western province which has involved an armed insurgency and military operations.
While human rights activists condemn the Pakistani state for using military might to crush Baloch dissenters instead of resolving the grievances of its citizens, the state’s dominant narrative accuses Baloch groups of involvement in a foreign-funded, anti-state separatist movement.
In its message, the students’ alliance also claimed that two men from an intelligence agency entered the office of Ali Khan, the dean of the social science department at LUMS.
The men allegedly showed Khan an order from the agency demanding the talk on Balochistan be cancelled or the organisers will have to face consequences, according to the alliance.
Khan subsequently sent an e-mail to students and staff stating that the talk was cancelled on the “orders of the government” of Pakistan. “LUMS is committed to working with the government to find a way to allow the university to hold conversations on topics that are sensitive but that need to be debated in an objective and unbiased manner,” he wrote in the email.
After the talk’s cancellation, LUMS students arranged a “Resilencing Balochistan” event in protest. Several students took to the LUMS Discussion Forum and social media to express their outrage.
LUMS students also participated in a whiteboard campaign and posted photos on social media accounts all day on Thursday with the hashtag “LUMS 4 academic freedom“.
Many students posted photos online of them holding whiteboards with messages in favour of freedom of speech, Baloch resistance and academic discussions.
Students also gathered outside the LUMS dining center at 6:30pm on Thursday, the scheduled time of the cancelled talk, for a silent protest against academic censorship, followed by a celebration of Baloch music.
Throughout the day on Thursday, students wore black arm bands and attended classes with a red tape over their mouths in protest.
Aleena Iqtidar an economics student at LUMS, said there can be no elimination of terror when officials walk into education institutions and use “danda” to eliminate academic discussions.
The hashtag #ShameOnLUMS also trended on Twitter during this time with both messages criticising the university for cancelling the event and tweets supporting the cancellation on grounds of patriotism.
Speaking with Pakistan Ink, Eesha Hammad, a political science student at LUMS, said those defending the state institution in this situation have limited themselves to a fascist mentality.
Fatima Ahmed, another student, said #ShameOnLUMS should be countered with #ThankyouLUMS or #ProudOfLUMS for, according to her, standing up for what is right.
The divisive narratives that played out on Twitter were also noticed by Baloch students at LUMS.
“There is a general chauvinistic narrative that our nation gets in to and we get overly patriotic over certain things,” said Abdul Qadeer Khan, a student in LUMS who is from Zhob, Balochistan.
“I have lived most of my life in Zhob where there haven’t been any such stories and therefore I can’t relate to it as a genuine source,” Abdul Qadeer Khan said. “However, any person who talks about the missing persons goes missing, especially the journalists who report on these events.”
He added that open discussions take place at LUMS on various topics that are not talked about in public, which, he said, is something that differentiates LUMS from other universities.
“I am very happy at my stay here,” he said.
The panel discussion’s list of speakers also included VBMP general secretary Farzana Majeed, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan IA Rehman, professor and activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar and human rights activist Sajjad Changhezi.
The talk was going to be moderated by Rashid Rehman, editor of the Daily Times newspaper.
In 2013, the VBMP had also staged a 2,000-kilometre long march from Quetta to Islamabad on foot to raise the issue of enforced disappearances and human rights abuses in Balochistan.
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights/WOT and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.