Monday, April 27, 2015

The other-isation of Balochistan

ISLAMABAD: If the state doesn’t want the people of Pakistan to hear about Balochistan, it needn’t worry too much. If the Balochistan session at the Islamabad Literature Festival is any indication, it doesn’t seem as if the people of Pakistan – or at least Islamabad – are that keen to understand it.


An earlier session on Sabeen Mehmud, who many say was killed because she dared to hold a talk on Balochistan, was held in one of the largest rooms of the venue. It was full of the young, the old, men and women, the well-heeled, and the not-so-rich. They were all there to mourn an extraordinary human being and her courage.

Read: Rights activist shot dead after seminar on Baloch issue

Minutes later followed the launch of a book on Balochistan by Tahir Bizenjo, a Baloch politician. The venue was one of the smallest rooms, that too overflowing. But the audience consisted only of Baloch students and National Party workers and very few of the usual, well-dressed literature festival audience members were there.

One can only imagine the size of the room or the audience if it were the chief minister of Punjab speaking at a literature festival.

No wonder then that senior journalist and human rights activist I.A. Rehman’s words were especially poignant, when he remarked that, “Pakistan didn’t understand Balochistan or what it has done to Balochistan”.

This was not the only perceptive remark he made.

Also read: T2F hosts the Balochistan discussion that others shy away from

He also told the audience that there were two strands of thought in this neglected province of Pakistan – one that struggles for the province within constitutional parameters, and those who think this fight has to be won through violent means.

“Sadly, those who tried the former were hounded,” he remarked, adding that as the state couldn’t get hold of those who were using arms, it turned its wrath on those who were working within the political system.

The people may not hound Baloch politicians; they were just ignored on Saturday.

The lack of attention Balochistan’s first non-sardar chief minister received at the literature festival can be contrasted with the interest that is generated when non-Baloch journalists or activists such as Mama Qadeer, talk about Balochistan.

Mr Rehman also told the audience that the missing persons’ issue was not one that was a problem of the Baloch provincial government – someone else had to be asked about it.

He described it as a grave national problem that had spread to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and even Sindh.

But nothing he said placated the audience, who had much to ask Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch and he took questions on his government’s performance, its achievements, the space it enjoyed and its ability to control the enforced disappearances.

While he was unable to convince everyone as he explained what his government had done in Gwadar and the negotiations he was carrying out vis-à-vis the 18th Amendment, he sounded both humble and impressive as he explained his beginnings.

“I worked as a chowkidaar during Zia’s time and now I have become the province’s chief minister. This is a great achievement for political workers.”

And while he frankly conceded his government’s short comings, he did promise that he would not let anyone down by being accused of corruption.

But his seemingly sincere answers were not enough for the angry young Baloch in the room, who prodded him on fake encounters, military operations and the people who had been disappeared, just days ago. The hour was too short far for them – if only the rest of ‘us’ had turned up to hear the ‘other’ that we only hear about when a seminar gets cancelled in Lahore or when one of us is killed in Karachi.

The silencing of the Baloch cannot be blamed on the state alone.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2015

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