Sabeen was a friend of mine and a friend to many in the progressive and activist circles of Pakistan. She had just organized a talk on the situation in Pakistan's Balochistan province, where the Pakistani army has been carrying out an extremely repressive military operation for a decade.
The talk was originally to be held in Lahore, then was cancelled by its host institution after threats from Pakistan’s intelligence services. Sabeen then decided to host the panel at The Second Floor space in Karachi, calling the event Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2. Some of the most well-known champions of the rights of Balochistan, including Mama Qadeer Baloch and Farzana Majeed, were invited to speak. Soon after the panel ended, Sabeen walked out of the building and was shot and killed.
The English-language newspaper Dawn reported on Sabeen’s brutal murder. “She died on her way to the hospital. Doctors said they retrieved five bullets from her body, which has now been shifted to Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre.”
Silencing those who unsilence Balochistan
Who might have wanted to kill Sabeen? To properly answer this question, we need to examine the historical context.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province in terms of area, is facing the fifth major military operation against it since Pakistan was founded in 1947. Each operation has been more brutal than the last. The present one, launched by former dictator Pervez Musharraf a decade ago, has seen 20,000 ethnic Baloch kidnapped, tortured and killed by the Pakistani paramilitaries working alongside their Jihadi acolytes.
Balochistan sits at a critical juncture for Pakistan. The majority of the country's gas and mineral resources are in that province. It borders Iran and Afghanistan as well as the other three provinces of Pakistan. Its huge coastline opens up to the oil routes of the Middle East. It has a natural deep sea port in the city of Gawadar, which can, if developed, challenge Karachi’s port as well as that of Dubai. In short, Pakistan’s economic future depends on Balochistan.
A history of state violence and resistance
However, the people of Balochistan have never felt part of Pakistan. Balochistan did not want to be a part of the country; it was forcefully annexed and was not given the status of a full province for years. Balochistan has been kept at the margins of the country by force. Every time the Baloch demand their due rights, the Pakistan state, dominated by the province of Punjab, replies with violence in order to subdue and subjugate the people.
All the while Balochistan is kept away from the centre of Pakistani political life, its natural resources are extracted and transferred to other parts of the country. The Baloch rightly see this as a theft of their land and resources by an occupying power.
Even as the crisis in Balochistan has worsened over the years, the Pakistani state has not changed its methods. It still treats Balochistan as land to be conquered and tamed so that its resources can continue flowing to the Pakistani mainland.
China's role: a new form of imperial subjugation
International politics also play a role in Balochistan’s plight. Earlier this week, the Chinese prime minister visited Pakistan and announced mega-development projects all across Pakistan, including Balochistan. China has had its eyes on the province as a gateway to the Middle East.
The Baloch have also protested against the Chinese development plans, but the local people have no say in the projects China is proposing. It is, for the Baloch, a new form of the imperial subjugation they have been facing since their homeland became a part of Pakistan.
Pakistan, on the other hand, knows how crucial it is for its economic future to “develop” Balochistan through Chinese investment. And in order to make sure there is no trouble, the Pakistani state is engaged in a process of further oppressing the Baloch. Targeting intellectuals is of prime importance. Ideas and words, after all, can be as or more threatening than guns. On the one hand, Pakistan is picking off armed Baloch insurgents, while on the other hand systematically targeting Baloch intellectuals.
As the stakes increase with the announcements of one mega-project plan after another, the Pakistani state is becoming more and more severe in its repression. It has now come to the point where supporters of Balochistan in the country’s major cities are being shot for expressing solidarity with the Baloch, or for merely organizing an event to discuss the issue.
Sabeen Mahmud has paid the ultimate price for her courage. Whoever pulled the trigger, the policies of the Pakistani state toward Balochistan played a role in her brutal murder. We can have no illusions that there will be an impartial investigation and that her real killers will be brought to justice.
As for the living, we all have a duty to speak out in memory of Sabeen Mahmud.