Thursday April 18, 2024

As Balochistan bleeds

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
April 20, 2019

On April 18, in the district of Gwadar near Ormara at least 14 passengers were killed by unidentified assailants. They were travelling by bus from Karachi to Gwadar, and on the way their buses were stopped, all the passengers were asked to produce their identity cards and 14 of them were off-loaded and shot to death. Just a week earlier, in Quetta, the Hazara community was targeted again and 20 people were killed in a bomb blast. Such incidents have happened regularly for the past many years while dozens of journalists have also been killed in Balochistan by ‘unidentified people’.

The worst part of this tragic story is that our state does not like it when we talk about it. Those who speak and write about it are assailed on social media, declared traitors, and have been persecuted in much worse ways with mental, physical and social consequences. As a result there is an almost blackout of news analysis on Balochistan.

Here we are not saying that no piece of news comes from there; when a tragic event of high intensity happens, people do get to know about it. There is no censorship on reporting a bomb blast or target killing, but there is a restraint – both self-imposed and state-induced – on historical and political analyses of Balochistan. Especially in the Urdu press you will hardly find good and in-depth analysis on the situation in Balochistan. At the most, you will see an occasional piece that propagates the official narrative of foreign intervention. You will also see some columnists, especially from outside Balochistan, writing about how the sardars of Balochistan have kept it backward and prevented our well-meaning state from doing development work there.

In English-language newspapers, the situation is slightly different. Some articles may be tolerated because readership is limited in comparison with the Urdu press. But the same article may not see the light of day in an Urdu newspaper. This has resulted in a deplorable ignorance and lack of awareness about Balochistan in other provinces. For example, recently a Pakistani journalist who works for the BBC went around in the streets of Lahore asking people what they knew about Balochistan; most excused themselves.

He even went to a couple of educational institutions, asking students simple questions about Balochistan and hardly anybody was able to respond positively. Apart from Quetta, they could not recall any other city of Balochistan. Nobody knew about the recent floods in Balochistan and what devastation they had caused. This situation is alarming as it further fuels alienation and ignorance. This lack of empathy from the people of other provinces towards Balochistan should be a cause of concern. Just by showing an occasional Baloch dance on PTV we cannot manage national integration.

So the problems here are twofold: one, historical and two, political. All other problems – such as economic, ethnic, religious and sectarian – emanate from the first two. Historically speaking, we need to be familiar with at least a 200-year history of Balochistan starting from the early 19th century. Sardar Mehrab Khan was killed in 1839 while fighting valiantly against the British and the following 100 years of history are replete with the efforts and initiatives of the local people against the occupying forces. This history is absent from our textbooks, whereas we do have chapters on Sirajud Doula and Tipu Sultan.

Politically speaking, 1947 onwards there have been a series of events that deprived Balochistan of its fundamental human and political rights. These rights are essential elements of a democratic polity. Since democracy was maligned in Pakistan from the very beginning, in favour of an authoritarian and totalitarian dispensation, other provinces also suffered. The state has followed an almost similar trajectory, no matter who is in power. And the same applies to Balochistan; be it Maj-Gen Iskandar Mirza or General Ayub Khan, Z A Bhutto or Musharraf, the state has never allowed the people to enjoy their democratic rights.

Being able to participate in free and fair elections is just one requirement for democracy. The ability to complete a full five-year term is another. Looking at Balochistan, we find that both the prerequisites were never fulfilled, much in the same manner as it happened in other provinces and at the federal level. The levers of power were taken away from the people and placed somewhere else. Especially with those who were either never elected or elected in a dubious manner with full interventions from undemocratic forces that were supposed to be non-political.

In the case of Balochistan, this tinkering with the democratic process was much more pronounced in comparison with other provinces. Keeping in mind the economic backwardness of Balochistan, it needed not the announcement of various packages, but a direct involvement of people in the democratic and development processes. But that would have deprived the state of its direct control of a province where the controlling authority saw too much at stake. In terms of the benefits that Balochistan offered to the rest of Pakistan, it was an area to be strictly controlled.

Lack of democracy always results in disgruntlement among the people. To curb this anger, various ethnic, religious, and sectarian forces are unleashed. It didn’t happen in Balochistan alone. In the Sindh of the 1980s, we saw the emergence of ethnic politics that adversely affected both the Sindhi and Urdu-speaking people; and General Ziaul Haq took full advantage of this ethnic strife. Similarly, sectarian politics always harms democracy and strengthens undemocratic and non-political forces. The way religious and sectarian outfits have been allowed to flourish and use violence to promote their agenda of hatred proves the point.

Why are the Hazara, Punjabi, Saraiki and Shia targeted in Balochistan? Non-state actors, be they Baloch nationalists or sectarian outfits, want to capitalize on the precarious law-and-order situation in Balochistan. A continued threat to stability is simultaneously a threat to democracy and poses a challenge to political forces much more than it does to the state. Just look at how political matters have developed in Balochistan during the past year.

The Nawaz Sharif government had established its democratic credentials by allowing the National Party of Dr Abdul Malik to form the government. But then in 2018 suddenly the entire democratic façade came crashing down when the basic principles of democracy were flouted. Then the establishment of BAP and the transfer of power after the highly controversial election of Jam Kamal further harmed democracy. So what does this have to do with the recent killings in Gwadar and Quetta? The point is that you cannot have stability unless you give democracy a chance to survive. And democracy means ensuring the rights to life, safety and security, the right to earn livelihood and the right to get an education without fear.

All these rights are fundamental and just by blaming ‘unidentified people’ or foreign elements we cannot solve any issue, be it in Balochistan or the entire Pakistan. A complete ban on, and disarming of, sectarian outfits, coupled with strengthening of democracy with all its rights respected by the state, may result in a curbing of violence in Balochistan. Again, our state institutions need to allow transparent debates involving both historical and political analyses, if they really want not only a diagnosis but also remedial cure of the bleeding Balochistan. For god’s sake, reflect at past mistakes, acknowledge them, and take corrective measures.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.