A tribute to Sabeen Mahmud from India, where many have responded with grief to the murder of the Pakistani activist and entrepreneur in Karachi last Friday
Late last Friday night, I was talking on the phone with a Pakistani friend who suddenly stopped our conversation with: “Oh my god, oh my god, Sabeen has just been shot”.
I did not know who Sabeen was but given the magnitude of emotion in my friend’s voice, I hung up. I googled Sabeen and read that she was a Director for a place called The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi. I read that T2F had organised a program about human rights violations in Balochistan and that she was shot dead soon after the event ended as she headed home.
I called up my businessman friend Tariq Jamil Khan in Karachi. He was simply stunned by the news.
“How can someone kill Sabeen?” he asked. “Sabeen was the most wonderful and polite human being”.
He told me more about Sabeen, an amazing friend for one and all who would warmly welcome people to T2F and enable and catalyse them to reach their potential in so many areas – arts, sciences, culture, music, politics, technology, poetry, literature, film. The list is endless because she had a holistic vision that saw the interconnectedness between seemingly disparate spaces. She was also an outspoken advocate for peace between India and Pakistan.
It was amazing how many people around the globe wept at her death, people who hadn’t even met her and some who had not even known of her before that dark day.
On social media, I saw a deluge of tributes, many of them from Indians. Sabeen was a vocal proponent of good relations between India and Pakistan and had visited India many times, and hosted Indians in Pakistan.
Over the next 24 hours, dozens of Indians wrote moving tributes to Sabeen, expressing their sense of personal grief and loss.
Chintan Girish Modi, an educator and India-Pakistan peace activist wrote, “I am really shaken after hearing about Sabeen Mahmud’s murder in Karachi. She was hope”.
The next day, he was still trying to make sense of it all as he wrote, “There’s so much to write about Sabeen. But the pen can move only after the tears stop.”
And finally, “Yeh kya ho gaya, yaar! Aansoo thamtay hee nahin” (What’s happening, friend! The tears won’t stop.”
Shivam Vij, a journalist with the news website Scroll.in wrote, “A brave soul in Pakistan has been shot dead because she spoke up. She gave voice to people whose voices were being silenced. Sabeen Mahmud spoke up when she knew the consequences could be dire…. Sabeen Mahmud a hero and inspiration for the entire world. #RIP #Respect”.
Well-known television journalist Barkha Dutt tweeted, “Gutted about assassination of @sabeen – warm, brave, delightful – she described herself as a fiery comet- and went in a blaze of heroism”.
Lalita Ramdas, well known environmental and peace activist wrote, “RIP? No – clearly you will not – you will inspire and provoke and struggle and provoke – wish I had met you – and yet somehow I feel we did”
Parshu Narayanan, the founder and creative director of Left Hook, a brand management company wrote, ” Pakistanis like @sabeen Mahmud remind us that we should stay humble and never be arrogant either of our democracy or Pakistan’s lack of it”.
Delhi-based activist Shabnam Hashmi quoted Sabeen’s interview in Wired magazine, 2013, where she talked about why she wouldn’t have an armed security guard at The Second Floor. “That’s the price you pay for having a public space. I’m not having people checked and a military guy there because of a pervasive fear.”
Sabeen added, “Read Chomsky. Things are dangerous and bad things happen. But you can’t let fear control you, you’ll never get anything done.”
“We extend our solidarity and sincere wishes. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Sabeen’s friends and family at the brutal killing of one of the most daring and fine activists of Pakistan,” wrote Shabnam.
Retired professor Prof. Badri Raina sent an email reminding friends of similar murders in India: “Recall that the rationalist, Dhabolkar, and comrade Pansare were likewise gunned down in Mumbai for promoting dialogue and a culture of rational enquiry.” In such cases, he wrote, the state is tacitly complicit.
“Beyond the present grief for Mahmud and for others who have died in this escalating war between fundamentalist intolerance and basic human rights, there are lessons for India,” commented journalist Nilanjana Roy, warning us against taking “the free spaces and the right to dissent that we have had so far for granted.”
Drawing attention to the rising clashes between religious and cultural majoritarians and liberal Indians as well as Bangladeshis and
“And yet, despite these troubling signs,” she notes, “it is worth remembering that those who stay on in a country going through upheaval often find ways to thrive and survive even the worst attacks on their spirit.”
Many who had known Sabeen personally wrote about how she gave them hope, advice and help in realising their dreams of transforming the world. It was a role she seemed to enjoy. Although she was a single woman, barely 40 years old, I felt there was something very nurturing, very maternal about her.
Someone quipped that if her killers had told her what they were going to do, she would have invited them for a chai to talk about their differences.
I could hear the buffaloes in the dairy near my house waking up but sleep was the last thing on my mind. I was grieving as if I had lost someone very dear. I wished I could travel back in time and to Pakistan and have chai with Sabeen. I wished I could share my world with her and listen to her words of wisdom and share her sense of fun.
Those who killed her have taken away that chance forever, but going by what her friends and admirers in Pakistan and around the world have to say, her legacy lives on and will continue to motivate us, in Pakistan as well as in India.
Rest in peace, Sabeen. You blazed a trail and passed the spark on to us. The story of your life and work will continue to inspire.
The writer is an IT professional and peace activist based in Ghaziabad, India. Email: [email protected]