The pall of gloom, anger and despondency in Pakistan has deepened with Saleem Shahzad’s gruesome murder. If the past is any guide, we will neither discover verifiable facts about his murder, nor will his killers be brought to justice. But let us revisit what we do know. Saleem Shahzad was called in by the ISI in October last year to discuss a story that he had filed for Asia Times Online and felt that he had received a muffled threat. He shared the details with his family, employers and some friends, including Human Rights Watch. Shahzad had written the first part of a story this past week suggesting that Al-Qaeda/Taliban had infiltrated the navy and the attack on PNS Mehran was a consequence of efforts to weed them out. Shahzad was abducted from a high-security zone in Islamabad while he was on his way to participation in a TV talk show. He was tortured to death and his body dumped in the canal close to Rasool Barrage a couple of days later.
Who could have abducted a journalist from one of the most fortified areas of Islamabad? If all this was the handiwork of Al-Qaeda/Taliban, why did they not make demands in return for his release, as they often do? If they didn’t abduct him for ransom or barter, why did they not claim credit for his assassination? Why did they not hold him out as an example for others they see as enemies or double agents, rather than silently dumping his tortured body, followed by an anonymous burial in Mandi Bahhauddin? Was the local representative of Human Rights Watch conspiring with Al-Qaeda and their “foreign” patrons when (according to reported conversations with interlocutors) he disclosed that Shahzad was being held by the ISI and would be released soon? Shahzad feared for his life and had pointed fingers. Should we simply disregard his account now that he is dead?
No terror group has claimed responsibility for Shahzad’s murder. But the ISI has denied involvement in his torture and killing, and resolved “to leave no stone unturned in helping bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice.” Let us assume that the ISI is being truthful here. How did we come to this pass where our leading intelligence agency is the prime suspect in the brutal murder of a journalist and, conscious of such a perception, feels obliged to issue a contradiction? Was Umar Cheema of The News really tortured by spooks or did he just imagine security personnel shaving his head? Was Kamran Shafi’s house never attacked? Is there some bright line rule that people will be roughed up but not killed? Or are the countless reported episodes of intelligence personnel intimidating journalists all lies? Has the US-Indian-Israeli nexus successfully manipulated the minds of our media and intelligentsia? Is this the best explanation for the suspicion that segments of our national security apparatus arouse?
Back in January 2010, I wrote about “reforming khakis.” I had endeavoured to identify multiple facets of the khaki mindset, as I understood them. “The first is an undaunted sense of righteousness,” I had argued. “This indoctrinates the military with the belief that its vision and definition of national security and national interest is the perennial manifestation of wisdom and truth. Any involvement of civilians with matters deemed to fall within the domain of national security is seen as unwarranted interference and an affront to its interests. This protective sense encourages the military to guard its proclaimed territory as a fief. The second facet of the khaki mindset is the military’s saviour instinct. Despite being a non-representative institution, the military has assigned to itself the role of deciphering aspirations of Pakistanis and protecting them. And the most insidious facet of this mindset is the unstated sense of being above the law that binds ordinary citizens.”
Consequently, I was “invited” to the ISI headquarter to meet with a brigadier who looked after internal security. I was offered a “tea break” while being informed that people within the GHQ had taken offence at my article. The brigadier read out “objectionable” excerpts from my article back to me and read from hand scribbled notes that spread over half-a-dozen pages to educate me on how I was wrong. He spoke for about 45 minutes before I sought permission to interrupt his speech and engage in a dialogue. At some point in this conversation he told me quite categorically that the army was more patriotic than the rest of us!
I wasn’t directly threatened at any point. However, I was informed, as a matter of historical record, that there was a time when the agency dealt with people only with the stick; but now things were different. During the meeting I felt obliged to reiterate my fidelity and loyalty to my country and was later ashamed and angry with myself for doing so.
I did not walk away from the ISI headquarters with a sense that this was another free exchange of ideas with a state official who disagreed with my opinion on how best to secure our national interest. In what is hard to describe accurately, I felt an eerie sense of anxiety and a need to protect my back. Not from the Taliban or terror groups but from the same security apparatus that is mandated by law to protect and defend my constitutional right to life, liberty and physical security.
The narration of this personal experience is important in Saleem Shahzad’s context because it is not an isolated one. Others within the media and civil society have had similar exchanges.
The ISI statement on Saleem Shahzad’s murder acknowledges his meeting with officials of the ISI’s Information Management Wing and asserts that “it is part of the Wing’s mandate to remain in touch with the journalist community…the main objective behind all such interactions is provision of accurate information on matters of national security.” From where does the ISI derive this entitlement to summon journalists, seek details of their sources or question their views? Is viewpoint censorship a part of our national security doctrine that the ISI is mandated to enforce? Does Article 19A of our Constitution not declare that access to information is a fundamental human right? Does Article 19 not endow citizens with freedom of speech and expression? And does Article 9 not guarantee the right to life and liberty? Should access to information and the right to hold and express an opinion be curtailed through intimidation? What kind of Animal Farm have we reduced this country to where exercising one’s right to free speech and information extinguishes the right to life?
Notwithstanding the legality or desirability of censorship, a shrinking world and superior technology have made it extremely hard to kill information or ideas, if not people. You cannot sell a terrible product on the back of a vigorous marketing campaign that relies largely on tyranny. More and more citizens are questioning Pakistan’s national security policy because they worry about the direction in which it is pushing this country. It is not allegiance to an enemy but the love for their homeland and concern for their future, and that of their kids, that motivates them to demand course correction.
There is one mother who spoils her kids rotten. And there is another who disciplines them, grooms them, and nurtures their character by teaching them to distinguish right from wrong. Both these mothers are acting out of love. But only the second is being constructive. This is time for all Pakistanis, and especially the more thoughtful ones within the security establishment, to engage in introspection instead of snapping at anyone holding the mirror to them.
( Reproduced from “The News” of Lahore, dated June 4,2011)