Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it” –
Censorship and repression are the last refuge of tyrants with shaky foundations. They simply neither have the self-belief nor the acumen to understand that the true strength of any system lies with the people. All they are good at is antagonising the sovereign (the people) and ending up invariably and inevitably being defeated by them. History is testament to this fact.
The disruption, banning, and then vandalisation of an art installation and documentary, The Killing Fields of Karachi by Adeela Suleman at Frere Hall, Karachi, as part of the Karachi Biennale 2019 has exposed the Pakistani state’s modus operandi in dealing with people and ideas that question the policies and tactics they adopt to suppress dissent under the guise of maintaining ‘law and order’. This is symptomatic of the way different regimes in Pakistan have dealt with people and how they have persistently striven to marginalise and suppress any form of dissent that threatens the anti-people system in vogue.
The documentary mentioned above showed the venue where Naqeebullah Mehsud and two others were killed by police in a fake encounter. It featured Muhammad Khan, Naqeebullah’s father. The installation featured 444 symbolic gravestones with wilted flowers on top, representing the 444 victims of extrajudicial killings in Karachi believed to have been perpetrated under the aegis of Rao Anwar, the notorious police officer who enjoys both political and the establishment’s support.
Most people termed this episode as an attempt to save Rao Anwar but I believe that this goes way beyond him and was intended to safeguard and protect the culture of impunity under which the establishment and its institutions have been getting away literally with murder. The installation by Adeela Suleman highlighted not only the 444 extrajudicial killings but also indicted those protecting the killers because no one has been held accountable for these murders.
Though Naqeebullah’s killing was highlighted by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and civil society, yet no one has been held accountable. It is this culture of impunity that was threatened and hence they acted by first stopping the documentary’s screening, then forcibly stopping the protest press conference by civil society, and eventually vandalising the art installation twice.
Is this something new for the establishment? Certainly not. Remember the “Unsilencing Balochistan” talk scheduled for April 9, 2015 at LUMS? Mama Qadeer (head of Voice of Baloch Missing Persons), Farzana Majeed and I were participants. The ISI cancelled it a day before it was to be held. They feared that the students would learn the truth about the atrocities in Balochistan. Both these incidents show the state establishment’s fragility and how it strives to maintain its domination by brutal repression and suppression of all avenues where the truth will be told.
The culture of impunity that the state enjoys has resulted in the enforced disappearances and kill and dump policies that are responsible for thousands of victims, primarily in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the practice now spreading to Sindh and even Punjab.
To prove that the establishment and its institutions are responsible for the enforced disappearances and kill and dump policy, I will give a few examples from Balochistan.
Dawn, March 3, 2011 reported that Balochistan’s Advocate General Salahuddin Mengal told the Supreme Court (SC): “We are recovering dead bodies day in and day out as the Frontier Corps (FC) and police are lifting people in broad daylight at will, but we are helpless. Who can check the FC?” Despite this no action was taken because no one had the authority to hold the FC accountable.
On February 6, 2012, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Balochistan President Sadiq Umrani said on the floor of the Balochistan Assembly that he and two other ministers witnessed the killing of two citizens by the FC personnel on the main Quetta-Kalat National Highway. He along with then Information Minister Yunis Mullazai and Home and Tribal Affairs Minister Zafar Zehri were returning after condoling the death of PPP leader Agha Irfan Karim’s mother when they saw the FC personnel holding two blindfolded and handcuffed men at the roadside near Mangochar. Both men were gunned down and their bodies were found there the next day. However, the FC denied responsibility and the matter was shelved.
Daily Times of March 21, 2013 reported that an SC three-member bench was told by the DIG CID Balochistan Feroze Shah that 10 army officers are involved in the abduction of missing persons in Balochistan. He stated, “Following the statements of 12 missing persons after they returned home, the Balochistan police asked the Frontier Corps (FC) to trace the whereabouts of the accused army men including two Lt Colonels, six majors and two subedars.” He added that the FC said some of these officers did not belong to it, and others had gone back to the army. Although some perpetrators were named, the SC proved powerless to act.
On May 13, 2012, the Inspector General (IG) FC Major General Obaidullah Khan (he was later dismissed from the army for corruption but that is another aspect of the story of the perpetrators), appearing before the SC stunned everyone by saying no person involved in almost 2,000 terrorist attacks had been arrested in Balochistan since 2011. This simply meant that all the suspects were eliminated. When he was shown a CCTV video of the FC personnel taking away a Baloch youth, the IG FC denied the charge, saying that there existed the possibility that FC uniforms were being misused by unknown people.
From the above examples it is clear that the disappearances, dumped bodies and extrajudicial killings of the Baloch, Pashtuns and Sindhis (and arguably now Punjabis too) is systematic and at the behest of the establishment and all this is done with impunity. It was in defence of this ‘culture of impunity’ that the Adeela Suleman installation was banned and then vandalised. It is a pity that the organisers of the Karachi Biennale 2019 backed the perpetrators and not the artist, but then this spinelessness is universal here. Recently when MNAs Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar were illegally incarcerated, the National Assembly Speaker didn’t have the spine to issue their production orders to attend the sessions of the House.
In the end allow me to quote Musa Anter, the Kurdish writer who was assassinated in 1992 by a Turkish secret military intelligence organisation. He said, “If my mother tongue is shaking the foundations of your state, it probably means that you built your state on my land.” And to those who banned, then vandalised Adeela Suleman’s art installation I would say: “If an art installation is shaking the foundations of your state, it surely means you are not the legitimate rulers.”