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‘The Disappearing Act’

The northern areas are particularly great this time of the year. Such is their allure that grown men have been known to abandon their vehicles in the middle of the road, disavow familial and professional ties, and set off in their direction on foot. “The mountains”, as the kids tell us on Instagram, “are calling”.

The grownups, it seems, are now paying attention. With the world being cradled gently out of its post-pandemic torpor, the transition has been hard on those who no longer have the professional endurance they once did. It’s hard to resist those clear blue waters and that crisp mountain air – particularly when things are getting a little intense at work.

And, yes, friendly company is great; but sometimes, you just have to do it alone. Accompanying every group of Pakistani friends are the ruins of an abandoned trip up north. Sometimes it’s best to just skip the heartbreak and go by yourself. This way, if you’re lucky enough, you may even get to find yourself. And if that doesn’t work out, who knows how many other lost souls you may end up running into, instead? The mountains, it seems, are calling out to many.

As always, the prime minister’s fingers are right on the pulse. Even in the deepest depths of the pandemic, our prime minister insisted on the importance of tourism. Haters criticised him for misplaced priorities, but Imran Khan clearly knew something they didn’t.

Now, it seems, he knows something they don’t, once more. When Sajid Gondal, an ordinary SECP employee, decided to play hooky from work, to make a quick trip north, the prime minister took it upon himself to snitch on him in the cabinet. “Disappearing” was “unacceptable”, he said. The IG and the interior ministry were given “strict orders”, though it is unclear what they were, and what they were supposed to do with them. To be fair, “hustle culture” is fine and all, but this seems like a massive overreaction. Anyway, poor Mr. Gondal soon discovered that the gig was up, and promptly made his way back to flat land.

Sure, some degree of trepidation is understandable: only a day prior, the prime minister was asked by an Al-Jazeera reporter why so many people in Pakistan tend to not be found in the physical locations they are expected to be in. Imran Khan responded by challenging the reporter to identify someone – anyone – who was missing (that is, other than that one guy, who only went missing ‘for a few hours’). But as we now know, the prime minister had nothing to worry about: this wasn’t a case of being disappeared, just a one of disappearing. If the state really cared to “pick up” naughty journalists, wouldn’t the faces of Bilal Farooqui, Absar Alam, and Asad Ali Toor adorn milk cartons right now?

This was not an enforced disappearance; it was extreme voluntary recreation.

As for the other gentleman who briefly dropped off the grid, Matiullah Jan was, indeed, only gone a few hours before he reappeared in the decidedly less exciting Fateh Jang. His case, too, was a mix-up – Matiullah’s chaperones, as it turned out, believed they were escorting someone named Zarak Khan. It was an inconvenience easily remediable by an exchange of introductory pleasantries, or interaction with any television set all over the country.

It’s a shame that Mr. Jan was returned so swiftly. A longer hiatus may have inspired, within other journalists, the fear of God. For there is an ever-increasing number who could do with a hint. Bilal Farooqui, Absar Alam, Asad Ali Toor all seem to be slipping through the cracks. But alas, the message was anonymous, and it was intended for a gentleman called Zarak.

And yet, the overreaction continues. In the time since Mr. Gondal’s truancy was exposed, there has been talk on expediting legislation on enforced disappearances. As a preliminary point, if the legislation is eventually passed, it cannot possibly be called anything other than the Disappearing Act (the title tying together these stray thoughts is an attempt to sow the seeds for this nomenclature early on). But to return to Mr. Gondal, this was not a case of being disappeared, anyway.

Sure, some specialised legislation would be great; but perhaps the prime minister is being a little overly protective. After all, if there were actually other people who were presently not where they were supposed to be, the state wouldn’t exactly be helpless. The laws may not use terms like ‘disappear’, but enough of them exist to perform a reasonable job. That is, if the need were to ever arise, of course.

For one, there is the constitution, which makes promises that sound suspiciously similar to “no one can force you to vanish into thin air”. Then there are all kinds of criminal laws that say things like “you really can’t go around abducting people, for no reason’. Finally, if locally manufactured laws aren’t up to the mark, we can always seek guidance from the imported kind. There is, for instance, the ICCPR, to which we are a party, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ISO Certified, imported, genuine original piece, etc.) to which we could be, if we were so inclined. If anything, the prime minister may want to keep a close eye on the eventual Disappearing Act, lest it ends up creating more allowances than barriers.

All of which is to say that, like the Prime Minister said, for now, things are just fine. If there is legislation on the way, then that is fine; but there is hardly any urgency. For now, let us cast our gaze to the changing colours of brittle leaves. And if there are still some, up north, that are to be shepherded back home, then surely the changing seasons will draw them back to warmer climates.

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