The Right to Not Disappear
Aug 5 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – It goes something like this: there’s a murder in the name of ‘honour’ in a village somewhere in Pakistan. The story is reported and journalists are inspired to look for more such instances to cover. They disperse in all directions and no matter where they go searching, they return with more such murder cases to dump on the ‘honour’ killing pile.
With time, the subject is replaced by, say, something as horrifying as gang rape. The media corps, its first line comprising the low-paid local correspondent with a finger on the market’s pulse, spreads afar and returns with a series of cases where only one would have been enough to ensure perpetual shame for all of us.
All the media, with its wide influence, needs is a cue to deliver on demand. It can unleash in relentless supply the most brutal of stories of exploitation, at workplaces, inside houses, of a sexual nature, et al, at a few hours’ notice. It can report on a story that had long been there. It can break it when it chooses, or it can hold on to it for unspecified durations, finally letting it out with a bang without bothering to explain the delay in the conveyance of the message.
How is the police file recording children’s disappearance different from a disappearance announcement made from a mosque?
Those who live close to a mosque in Lahore would vouch that children do go missing in this city: from children as small as toddlers who are barely able to tell their names, to those who are driven by the reputation of adolescence to be suspected of playing a hand in their own disappearance. The mosque’s loudspeaker is regularly used to announce the disappearance and to seek help in the recovery of those who go missing, an overwhelming majority of whom are children.
There may be sometimes an urge to find out if those who had been unaccounted for did return. No one has ever heard the respected maulvi sahib celebrate a reunion of the missing with their family by issuing a statement of congratulations through the public address system.
So regular are these announcements about the missing that now nobody seems to be too bothered about them. People hear them, say tauba, and go about their work without any grand show of emotion. The same trend that begins from the streets around the mosque is then reflected at various levels, creating many layers of indifference that the most knowledgeable amongst us believe is essential to life as it is.
Just think about it: how is the police file recording the cases of children’s disappearance in a specific period different from a disappearance announcement made from a mosque? Like these calls, these numbers have been compiled year after year, with little in terms of action to ensure a safer world for our children.
A typical such file will take you over a familiar route. The spots from where children are more likely to be picked up are highlighted, such as the darbar or shrine of the most revered saint or the tower built to mark independence or the bazaar named after the beloved damsel torn between Akbar and his son Saleem. A child may be abducted from all these places or from a park or a hospital or a mere bus terminal. The police’s book diligently counts these incidents. The self-indictment comes when these cold figures are not accompanied by any plans – not even a pledge — of just how serious our law enforcers are to safeguard these vulnerable young citizens against the cruel hands of a long grown-up society.
Missing had been the story about just how hazardous the streets of Lahore — or any other place in Pakistan — were for those we must never tire of calling as our future. A series of stories about the children missing or kidnapped has opened the floodgates on gushing fears pegged on both real and imagined incidents. The warning letters have been written, about how the children can be– how they are, says the chorus — duped into following their abductor like the rats followed the Pied Piper.
The imaginary stuff would have been easier to deal with had the ‘real’ stories not been packed with the horrors of the most fearsome kind. Imagine… no do not imagine but try and come to terms with the unearthing of this racket where a food catering contractor apparently bought young boys and then employed them as slave labour. Try and come face to face with the recovery of the disabled young girl whom the members of a beggars’ ring had abducted out of here and taken deep into Sindh.
The labour camp, the beggars’ mafia, are just two manifestations; the stereotype is kept alive in so many of our responses. Not the least most painful among them is how Lahore as the venue for these disappearances has left some people typically aghast. They must show mock surprise at the wonder-city that hogs funds and official patronage but is so oblivious to the plight of the young ones in its charge. It is the same smirk that had previously been displayed when Lahoris were found to be eating donkey-meat or when they were being preyed upon by a killer mosquito. Little does the envious crowd realise that where the development projects are grand, the likelihood of serious everyday issues suffering neglect is that much greater. The missing resolve on children is proof.
These stories come in steadily, each one of them bringing back the sensation we experienced when as a young, learning soul we were given our earliest lessons in how to keep our distance from the big bad world we were such an integral part of. There was nothing more serious, more nightmarish than being lost in a world we were required to explore, to tame and to conquer. The way we have failed to deliver on the basics — such as a young, and old, soul’s right to not disappear — shows we have all been long lost.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2016
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan