Case of the missing news

WE grew up with our grandmother often making references to the ‘Sulaimani topi’ , the proverbial cap that made the wearer magically disappear from view. Much, much later, the concept came into play in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books in which Harry used the ‘cloak of invisibility’.

In both instances, the disappearing act was pure fiction. Tragically, in Pakistan today 24/7 news channels and all media houses (the honourable exception being just that) seem to be making increasing use of the Sulaimani topi.

This week the Akhtar Mengal-led Balochistan National Party held a public meeting in Quetta which, going by the photos/clips on social media, was one of the biggest public gatherings in the provincial capital in a long time.

What the Baloch see as a burning issue ie disappearances, has more or less been ‘disappeared’ from the media thanks to the cloak of invisibility.

As I scanned the various news channels and newspapers, I struggled to find even a small mention of it. Sardar Akhtar Mengal and his party contested the 2013 general election and do not fall in the ‘separatist-terrorist’ category by any stretch of the imagination.
But in an environment where a suicide bombing that wiped out an entire generation of lawyers — many of whom were staunch believers in human rights and were forever striving to further that cause — was blamed on the enemies of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor rather than the religious extremists who claimed responsibility for it, the patriotic media prefers to err on the side of caution.

After all, Sardar Akhtar Mengal and his party talk of the rights of the Baloch people. Such politicians and activists, in the eyes of the patriotic media, are walking a very, very thin line that divides the ‘acceptable’ from the treasonous. So why should they take chances? Better to use a collective Sulaimani topi — and bingo! The thousands-strong gathering disappears from view.

In any case, what the Baloch see as a burning issue ie disappearances, has more or less been ‘disappeared’ from the media thanks to the cloak of invisibility. In late July, a Karachi social worker Comrade Wahid Baloch was returning home on a coach after a visit to interior Sindh when, on the outskirts of the city, plainclothesmen took him away after stopping the vehicle.

Four weeks later, the media continues to hold a Sulaimani topi over his head, with hints coming from unnamed official sources that some ‘separatists’ may have met Wahid Baloch in Digri where he had gone to condole the passing of a friend. Someone has also advised those making inquiries about the missing man to wait as he might return one of these days after he has been debriefed.

Then, there is the case of MQM worker Aftab Ahmed who was tortured to death (as the autopsy established) in custody in early May this year. After the army chief ordered an inquiry into the incident, the Rangers said the personnel involved had been suspended and would be proceeded against. Four months on, we await the details of action against them.

Where the authorities, followed by the media, have the capacity to ‘disappear’ people and issues, the Sindh Rangers have also been able to do the reverse. As news reports of a Senate sub-committee proceedings have told us, there now exists a ‘Human Rights Commission South Asia’ which, a Rangers submission to the Senate said, has given it a clean bill of health in terms of its record in Karachi.

Apart from an obscure website, nobody can find this organisation or any of its functionaries especially after one of the two men cited as its representatives in Pakistan has disavowed any association with it. In fact, he says he has not even heard of the body. The other rep is not reachable using his contact information provided on the site.

This report was wholly unnecessary simply because ask anyone in Karachi and they will tell you that the Rangers and police have done a great job in clipping the wings of the various parties’, most notably the MQM’s, militant cadres.

This is remarkable indeed in a city which resembled a lawless jungle with various armed groups holding sway over its different parts. These ruthless armed groups also appeared to be at liberty to indulge in land-grabbing and extortion, and carry out targeted killings, till the start of the Rangers-led operation a mere three years back. Now most of their networks have been smashed and trades shut down.

It is only fair to the bulk of the Rangers in Karachi and their khaki counterparts in the terrorist-infested areas in the north-western reaches of the country, who have offered blood sacrifices and fought back the existential threat to Pakistan that where some of their colleagues stray from the lawful path these are also mentioned for the purpose of course correction.

When some of us cry ourselves hoarse over the free rein that certain religious militant groups enjoy, leading to confusion about the direction of the operation against terrorism, I am not using the words of Sushma Swaraj and John Kerry as some in the media have taken to alleging. How could I?

I remember well Ms Swaraj was the person who briefed the press on behalf of the Indian hardliners and thwarted the only sane course for her country to extricate itself from the Kashmir quagmire when Pervez Musharraf and Atal Behari Vajpayee were nearing agreement at Agra in 2001.

Given the popular, indigenous (yes, indigenous) uprising in India-held Kashmir and the repressive measures being used to crush the renewed azadi movement, as we speak, frankly makes me livid even after all these years at the pain Ms Swaraj and her political stablemates have caused.

Such views, and that too across the whole range of issues, don’t make someone a super-patriot or whatever is the exact opposite. Saying what is right and what is wrong is something some of us, no matter how few, are not prepared to give up. The ultrapatriotic critics are welcome to have a go. That is their right.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

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