When they disappear, they are opinionated and noisy; they believe their 800-word op-ed or their Facebook post or the poem that went viral will change the world. When they return, they have become the sort of people who will say, it was nice knowing you, why don’t you shut up and go away?
It’s as if they weren’t abducted by the state and kept in a dungeon or a safe house, probably interrogated, in some cases tortured, and always threatened. It’s like they went to some rehab program from which they have come back fully reformed and compliant.
In the past year, hundreds of political activists in Karachi have been picked up, and some renounced their loyalties upon their return. They leave the country if they can; otherwise, they try to become unquestioning citizens. Maybe they are right. What good has ever come of talking about state abduction and torture and solitary confinement?
A number of character flaws can make you a missing person. Maybe you have not cursed India enough for its atrocities in Kashmir. Maybe you belong to a religious militant group. Maybe you are too fond of questioning the army’s role in the country’s affairs. Maybe you criticize the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a grand network of roads and bridges that is supposed to transform our fortunes. Or maybe you just protest too much about other missing persons.
Five social-media activists disappeared recently. They were little known outside their own social-media bubbles. They were gone for almost three weeks, and during their absence, a slew of tweets and pro-army Facebook pages claimed that some of them had been posting material that insulted our religion.
Blasphemy is a killer charge. Any word or action that is seen to cause offense to any religious group — in fact, anything construed as insulting a religious figure — can make you an open target for religious zealots. Calling someone a blasphemer is a blood sport.
Pakistan’s interior minister went on record to discourage such accusations against the five missing activists. But these charges have built-in momentum. Once accused of blasphemy you can’t really ward that off: How do you defend yourself against a charge that can’t be repeated in public? What exactly is it that you didn’t do?
Imagine getting released after a few weeks in a dungeon and re-entering the world only to see people on national television demanding your head and religious parties on street corners waiting to lynch you. First, you were disappeared by the state; then when you are released, you feel forced to disappear from public life.
It’s not just that the state is stifling dissent; it’s also making everyone wonder: Have I crossed the line? Where was that line? How come that other person crossed every line of decency and still has a TV show?
And it’s not only the state and its intelligence agencies waging war on common sense; the media and other civil institutions are as well.
Aamir Liaquat Hussain, one of Pakistan’s leading television preachers, has turned into a political analyst and in a series of nightly programs, accused the missing activists of having committed blasphemy. Then he said they had defected to India. Then he singled out a number of Pakistani journalists who had spoken out for the missing, and accused them, too, of blasphemy. Mr. Hussain has worked for almost all the major channels, usually as one of their top earners. He puts lives in danger, and media owners bid for him.
ARY Network, a Pakistani TV station, recently lost a libel suit in London brought by a rival it had accused of committing blasphemy and being an Indian agent. Its defense in court: Nobody really takes our TV anchor seriously.
Never mind that when one journalist accuses another of blasphemy, he only exposes himself more to being targeted for the same thing.
A journalist friend recently told me about being picked up and taken to a safe house for a so-called debrief about his work. Three good, patriotic men from an intelligence agency told him they knew everything about his children’s school, his wife’s job, his father’s career. He was told that there were two kinds of troublemakers in this country: foreign agents and fools.
“We have seen your bank accounts and you are nobody’s agent. You appear to be a mere fool,” they told him. The message was clear: Stop being a fool. We know which school your kids go to.
I submitted an Urdu translation of one of my novels to a leading publisher a while ago. Through a mutual friend I was asked to change a few things, just to be on the safe side. Nothing was specified. I respectfully inquired what bits I should change. You are intelligent enough, I was told; you live here, you should know.
That’s the scary part, I don’t really know if I am intelligent or a fool.