There was a palpable energy in the room. Guests from different walks of life – leftists, nationalists, students, idealists, pragmatists, ‘traitors’ and ‘patriots’ alike – had all gathered at The Second Floor (T2F) to hear one man speak. Abdul Qadeer Baloch, better known as Mama Qadeer, was in Karachi to give a talk on the injustices carried out by the state in Balochistan. His discussion at the Lahore University of Management Sciences scheduled for April 8, 2015 had been cancelled earlier, purportedly under government pressure. Titled “Unsilencing Balochistan”, the talk was then shifted to the small café in Karachi. Other panellists included activist Farzana Baloch and columnists Wusatullah Khan and Mohammad Ali Talpur, who was part of Qadeer’s 2,300-kilometre Long March from Quetta to Islamabad.
The audience applauded. They raised questions. They argued. The session ended; the conversation did not.
The woman responsible for bringing them all together on one platform was T2F’s founder Sabeen Mahmud; ever-present and alert, making sure everything ran smoothly and passing the microphone around — at ease with friends and strangers alike.
As the event concluded after 9 pm, Mahmud left for home along with her mother. Minutes later, the staff at T2F began shutting off the lights and asking guests to leave as they had to close early. The unthinkable had happened.
“Sabeen has been shot.”
She was pronounced dead by the time she reached the hospital. Four bullet wounds punctured her body. Her mother was wounded.
“I just don’t know what the blowback entails. Wish you were here,” were Mahmud’s last words in a private conversation to a friend on Facebook. She had received threats in the past and once again now — according to a friend, a mysterious phone call (so commonplace for her that it was brushed aside) had been made and men in plainclothes paid her a visit, asking for the event to be cancelled. Her staff tried to dissuade her from holding the discussion but no one had anticipated the consequence. T2F was supposed to be a safe space, after all. Initiated in 2007, and partially inspired by the iconic Pak Tea House in Lahore, it was meant to be a space to learn, speak and be heard.
A self-labelled “flower-child”, tech-enthusiast and unabashed fan of Steve Jobs, Mahmud was born in Karachi and studied at the Karachi Grammar School before going to Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore for higher education. In her own words, she spent her college years “valiantly trying to drop out.” In an article for a Massachusetts Institute of Technology quarterly, she wrote: “Just about everything, however mundane, was more exciting than the stifling confines of a classroom.” During this time, she learned how “to solder wires, install hard drives, and swap motherboards, for intellectual respite and rejuvenation” at an Apple computer dealership in Karachi.
In 2013, she led Pakistan’s first civic hackathon in which designers, web-developers and programmers brainstormed to come up with solutions to address common problems that citizens face.
Mahmud’s activism showed through the multiple forums she organised or assisted, encouraging the kind of discussions others would be afraid to host. In March last year, an event was held that questioned the basis of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
At a protest outside the Karachi Press Club, days after her killing, Veeru Kohli stood alongside Mama Qadeer demanding justice for Mahmud. In 2013, when the former bonded labourer stood for elections, Mahmud helped campaign for her. The marginalised, the disenfranchised, the ‘freak’ — Mahmud held a soft corner for all. The large number of mourners at her funeral, many of whom did not even know her personally, is evidence of the impact she had on thinking citizens.
“The problem is that we have too many conformists and not enough crazy people in this world,” journalist Khan said at the last discussion Mahmud organised.
Mahmud was anything but a conformist. With her passing, Pakistan loses another progressive voice as the space for dissent becomes even thinner. The message sent by her murder for activism in this country is clear: stay silent or be silenced.
This was originally published in Herald's May 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.