The shrinking space for pluralism in Balochistan

Updated December 10, 2013


Muhammad was pacing faster than usual to the weekly corner meeting with his friends in the small town in Turbat, Balochistan. He had waited the whole week for this evening’s meeting. The weekly casual discussions were an integral part of his life. Him and his friends would sit at the street corner café and begin their marathon discourse. From civic issues facing their locality to widespread global conflicts, they would discuss just about everything under the sun over countless cups of steaming black tea.

Tonight, they were speaking on social reform and discussing revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Bhagat Singh. Muhammad was feeling particularly excited. On his recent trip to Karachi he had gotten hold of the translated version of Paulo Freire’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ and made copies of key excerpts from the iconic book. He was eager to share and debate the book’s contents with his friends.

Everyone grabbed their stapled copies and started reading and making notes for their discussion. Suddenly Zaheer, a member of the group, abruptly interjected, ‘Is Paulo Freire even a Muslim? Is he some renowned Islamic scholar? Why do we waste our time reading these non-believers?’ Slightly taken aback by the terse outburst, the rest of the group looked at each other quizzically. They had never thought about Freire’s, or any other intellectual’s religious affiliation before, it just didn’t seem relevant. Visibly frustrated, Zaheer left the discussion. He was somewhat distraught with his friends for drawing inspiration from the ‘infidels’.

Zaheer’s changing thoughts and behaviour are not an isolated occurrence. Instead, they are symptomatic of a larger, more serious ailment; one that is slowly turning into a full-blown epidemic.

In Balochistan, despite the low literacy rate and years of neglect at the hands of the state, the youth have always exhibited a strong sense of historical awareness and political wisdom. Schools and colleges in small towns, particularly along the coastal belt of Makran, regularly organise debates and poetry sessions. The middle-class youth of Balochistan does not solely rely on their obsolete curricula and dated textbooks for their educational and informational needs. In spite of being in a vastly remote territory, they have managed to lay their hands on some of the most influential books on history, politics, literature and philosophy from around the world. At the same time, they are proud of their region’s rich and secular history, where for centuries people from different sects of Islam and other religions have co-existed in harmony. Sadly for them, all that is now changing.

Demographically, Balochistan consists of many minority groups that have been around for hundreds of years. Hindus constitute the largest non-Muslim minority in Balochistan and have been living there since before 712 A.D. During the partition of the sub-continent, most Hindus living in the princely state of Kalat chose not to migrate. They considered their homes, businesses and lives to be safer under the then ruler of Kalat, Yar Muhammad Khan. Balochistan is also home to the followers of a lesser known Islamic sect, who call themselves Zikris; the Zikris are devout followers of Imam Mehdi. Their most revered place of pilgrimage is called the ‘Lahoot La Makan’ in Wadh, Khuzdar. There is also a sizeable presence of, almost half-a-million Dari-speaking, Shia Hazaras who migrated in the 19th Century from Hazarajat in central Afghanistan to what is present day Quetta. A large number of Hazaras moved to Quetta following the political unrest in Afghanistan. Most of them were involved in running various small businesses and many were expert carpet weavers and calligraphers. For years in Balochistan, these minority groups experienced complete religious freedom and were consequently able to grow and prosper as hard working members of the community.

The Hinglaj Mata temple is located in the Lasbela district of Balochistan.
The Hinglaj Mata temple is located in the Lasbela district of Balochistan.

Today this secularist tapestry, a distinct aspect of the pluralist Baloch culture, is increasingly under threat. The rising intolerance one sees across the province is both complex and well-orchestrated. It has already brought its share of grief and fear. Violence against the Hazaras has so far claimed the lives of more than 1,200 victims; many of them women and children. The entire Hazara community today lives in constant fear of their own distinct shadow. Regular ‘kidnapping-for-ransom’ incidents against Balochistan’s Hindus has also become a growing concern. A large number of Hindu doctors, lawyers, businessmen and teachers, fearing for their lives, have already fled Balochistan. To make matters worse, the seminaries preaching sectarian hatred frequently label the Zikris as kafirs (non-believers) and consider them as acceptable targets for extermination.

The entire Hazara community today lives in constant fear of their own distinct shadow.
The entire Hazara community today lives in constant fear of their own distinct shadow.

Over the past five years, the number of new madressahs in Balochistan has risen exponentially. Geographically, these new madressahs have penetrated into all minor and major population clusters. Their emergence has been rapid and they appear to be supremely well-funded (if their impressive infrastructure and allied facilities are anything to go by). Not only are these madressahs free to operate throughout Balochistan, but they are also free to deliver propagandist sermons that incite sectarian violence. These madressahs disseminate well-doctored hate material in the form of pamphlets, CDs and text books. Most of these madressahs have repeatedly raised their voices for the imposition of their version of Sharia across Balochistan.

Interestingly, in the recent earthquake in Balochistan where international aid agencies and local NGOs were barred from entering Balochistan, the religious organisations and their charity-arms, most of them with established ties to militant organisations were allowed to make inroads into the province. According to many locals, there is covert support for these madressahs from the state security agencies. Many think that the recent injection of religiosity is an attempt to divide an otherwise united youth along religious and sectarian lines - a diversion tactic to curb the nationalist movement. Militant organisations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) that operate from south Punjab are actively recruiting young Baloch men, particularly from the Khuzdar region of Balochistan. Today, when people in Balochistan hear surnames like Mengal and Buledi associated with the LeJ, the news comes as a rude shock to them.

It was not too far back when a similar scenario to the one unfolding in Balochistan was played out in another part of Pakistan, albeit for different reasons. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) was then a newly established war theater. The state, under General Ziaul-Haq’s command, was promoting an extremist brand of Islam, recruiting mujahideen to fight the Soviets and fanning the flames of militancy for short-term ‘strategic’ leverage. Back then, through these religious seminaries and their allied training camps, young Pashtun men were incited, trained and readied to commit themselves to militancy. Young and impressionable, the Pashtun fell to the ruse like a pack of cards, forgetting the legacies and customs of their tribal elders and ancestors. When the mission was accomplished, the umbilical cord was cut by the state and its foreign patrons as clinically as it was forged; the once spoilt militia was left to fend for itself.

A decade and a half later, recharged, re-grouped and re-financed, the same jihadists have now metastasized into countless terrorizing coteries spread all across KPK. Armed with their specific brands of Islam and ready to eliminate anyone that opposes or impedes their mission, sectarian and religion-based violence has engulfed the entire province of KPK. As a wise voice once said, ‘today the killer and the killed are both Pashtuns’.

As proven over time, the use of outlawed proxies for short-lived gains is a dangerous and self-defeating strategy. Its deployment in Balochistan may aid in temporarily curbing the nationalist movement currently underway, but the blow back will be felt far beyond the borders of Balochistan. This cancer of sectarian and religion-based violence, if persisted with as a tool for statecraft, will sooner than later creep its way into the safer havens of Pakistan’s other provinces.

One can only hope that Zaheer and other young impressionable men like him will finally begin to see through the polemics used to lure them into becoming torchbearers of a specific brand of religion. The sooner they arrest their fall into the cauldron of extremism, intolerance and violence, the better it will be for them, their families and for the religious minorities across Pakistan. Likewise, the sooner the powerful realise their historical misadventures are not worth repeating, the better it will be for everyone. Alas, who will make these demigods realise is the bigger question. Any takers?