The Pakistani establishment is trying to muzzle dissent within Pakistan — and without.
On the eve of 2018, Pakistan’s former military dictator Pervez Musharraf gave an interview in which he advocated that Pakistan needs to get over the passive diplomacy it had been following and resort to ‘pro-active’ diplomacy. This essentially meant resorting to assassinations of dissident Pakistanis who had taken refuge in other countries. According to Musharraf, this was what every country did and there was no reason why Pakistan shouldn’t adopt similar methods to get rid of those whom it perceived as enemies of the state. Although there hasn’t been (and is highly unlikely to be) any official endorsement or acknowledgment of such a policy, events since that fateful interview suggest that people in positions of authority in Pakistan have taken their cue from their former Army Chief and operationalised the use of assassinating dissidents.
The discovery of the body of Karima Baloch, a leading Baloch freedom fighter in exile in Canada, is the latest such incident. Ms Baloch had gone missing from Toronto on 20 December and her dead body was discovered a day later. Although details of what exactly happened are as yet unknown — some reports claim she had drowned — there is almost a consensus of sorts among Pakistani dissidents that she was done down by death squads or assassins linked to the Pakistani state and its infamous intelligence agencies. Karima Baloch herself had warned that such an attack was quite possible — even likely — because of the number of former Pakistan military and security officials who had been facilitated to settle in Canada by Canadian authorities.
Karima Baloch isn’t the first Pakistani dissident who has been killed, or if you want to be very politically correct, died mysteriously. Earlier this year, in May, a Baloch human rights activist and journalist Sajid Hussain’s body was also discovered in Sweden, where he had taken refuge after fleeing persecution in Pakistan. Hussain had ‘disappeared’ — normally such disappearances are an everyday occurrence in the ‘Land of the Missing People’ aka Balochistan—in March. On the face of it, the modus operandi in the case of both Hussain and Baloch seems to be similar — both drowned! Too much of a coincidence, isn’t it? The Swedish authorities conveniently claimed that Hussain’s death was either an accident or suicide and never really bothered to neither investigate his disappearance nor his death with any degree of seriousness. It didn’t take long for mouthpieces of the ISI to spin the story of Hussain’s death and absolve their paymasters.
It seems quite unlikely that the attitude of the Canadian authorities will be any different from that of the Swedes. After all, the Canadians initially denied Karima asylum because of her “group’s involvement in ‘subversion’ against the Pakistani government.” The fact that the Canadian government, because of its vote bank politics and dependence on Pakistani and Khalistani groups has created an environment of impunity for radicals, suggests that Karima’s death will go unpunished. Incidentally, even though Karima was sought to be denied asylum for reasons stated above, the subversion against India by Pakistanis and Khalistanis doesn’t seem to bother the Canadian authorities. Whether this is only because of their voting strength and street strength or it also has to do with the fact that some of this element is in government and in a position to subvert normal legal processes is a matter of debate.
Attacks on Pakistani dissidents have also been reported from the Netherlands where a dissident Pakistani blogger Ahmad Goraya was assaulted outside his home. Other Pakistani journalists in self-exile have also been threatened and intimidated in different cities of Europe, including Paris. In the UK, the Pakistani deep state has been using the Mirpuri and Pakistani diaspora to organise and orchestrate violent protests against India, including the Indian High Commission. The environment of permissiveness offered by countries like Britain and Canada to the Pakistanis has been exploited by the Pakistani intelligence agencies to use these countries against Indian interests.
But the ‘pro-active diplomacy’ isn’t limited to Western countries. It has been also put in practise in Afghanistan. Since 2018, there have been a series of attacks against Baloch dissidents who have taken refuge in Afghanistan. In December 2018, a suicide bomber blew himself up and killed a number of people in a compound near Kandahar in which Baloch dissidents lived. According to Pakistani press reports, one of the alleged masterminds of the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi was among those killed. A few months later, a car bomb in the same place again targeted Baloch freedom fighters. Once can be a coincidence, but a second attack is quite clearly deliberate enemy action. Not just the Baloch, even Pashtun dissidents, including members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have been targeted inside Afghanistan in covert operations. In Kashmir also, assassinations has for long been the name of the game of Pakistan to get rid of inconvenient political figures. The list is long — Mirwaiz Maulvi Farooq, Abdul Ghani Lone, Shujaat Bukhari, Abdul Majeed Dar, Abdul Ghani Bhat’s brother, and an attempt on the life of Fazal Haq Qureshi.
Musharraf’s pitch for assassinations was actually more a call for extending these operations to countries where Pakistan had been somewhat reluctant. In 1984, Pakistan operated through a shadowy Kashmiri outfit called Kashmir Liberation Army (KLA), which was linked to Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), and abducted and murdered an Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in Birmingham. The Pakistani state had of course been careful to put layers between them and their proxies and even though it was suspected that the Pakistanis were behind that dastardly murder because of the way they protected some of the wanted men, nothing could be proven conclusively. But after that incident, there were no other cases of Pakistani involvement in assassinations in the West. Until now that is.
In all likelihood, it will be difficult to trace the killings to the ISI. The Pakistani intelligence agency would have taken enough precautions to ensure that there is no evidence that links it with these killings. The Pakistanis have probably cultivated enough assets in the diaspora to use for such activities. And they have enough leverage over these elements to ensure that even if they get caught they won’t open their mouth against the ISI. Both Sajid Hussain and Karima Baloch have been killed in a manner that it will be difficult to prove it was a murder.
All this means a certain amount of professionalism has been brought in on these operations. The targets are carefully monitored and chosen to create maximum impact and terror among the dissidents without inviting a huge reaction from the host countries. More importantly, until now the assassinations and assaults have generally been against people who aren’t really celebrities whose murder will create a huge uproar and force a serious investigation; the victims live in countries that either can’t or won’t retaliate even if they find Pakistani fingerprints behind these crimes, which they would most probably not find because they simply won’t be interested.
Clearly, assassinations and assaults, intimidation and blackmail, harassment and psychological torture is now part of the tool set that the Pakistani establishment is deploying to muzzle dissent within Pakistan and without. And encouraging them to do this with impunity is the permissive attitude of Western countries which seem to be playing along and not putting an end to the shenanigans of Pakistani dirty tricks department either for political or for diplomatic reasons. But this sort of activity could easily result in a Mhatre-like incident and if that happens, the blame and blood of such an incident will be on the hands of the governments which wilfully and wittingly turned a blind eye to the actions of the Pakistani state and sections of the diaspora that seems to be acting at the behest and in the interest of the Pakistani deep state.
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Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.Read More +