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NON-FICTION: MYTHS OF BALOCHISTAN

January 28, 2018

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Baloch protestors march towards Karachi, holding photographs of their relatives who were allegedly abducted by security forces | AP/Dawn file photo
Baloch protestors march towards Karachi, holding photographs of their relatives who were allegedly abducted by security forces | AP/Dawn file photo

I once sat with a boy on a bench in Quetta, who recounted to me the ways he was going to die: “I will die a patriot, serving Pakistan, a sarmachar, a guerrilla, fighting for Balochistan, a shaheed, a martyr for Islam. Or sitting at home, with my mother, when the forces raid our home.”

It was a summer afternoon and he was trying to cajole the university administration to accept his registration papers so he could start his courses in the coming academic year. In the face of his impending death, of which he was so thoroughly convinced, such a mundane chore provided a refuge from a life defined by a long, never-ending, low-intensity war. He lived in Quetta and was regularly harassed by soldiers and militants alike because he refused to fully join either one of them. Yet, being young, strong, well-educated and male meant that he did not elicit the sympathies usually reserved for impoverished women and children. Neither perpetrator nor victim, this boy had no place in the simplistic narratives of the Baloch spun by others, who are either greedy or aggrieved.

A new book out on Balochistan, written by the retired naval officer Ihsan Qadir, reproduces tropes that obscure, rather than illuminate, the region. Titled Balochistan: Victim of Greed or Grievances? the book applies a framework that predetermines our analysis before it has even begun. Inspired by the “greed versus grievance” argument developed by an Oxford professor, Paul Collier, and research officer, Anke Hoeffler, in a World Bank paper from 2002, the book unreflectively applies a framework, but not the critiques launched against it. The assumption is that people who organise a political, even armed, opposition to the central government must be either hapless victims or greedy troublemakers.

A new book confirms what we already know: we cannot speak openly about Pakistan’s largest province

Some people are certainly more powerless than others: a widowed mother of 10 in Dasht is more at the mercy of forces outside her control than a rich sardar, or an official ‘tribal’ head, living in a Quetta mansion. But this ignores the fact that the widow may have been supportive of her husband’s decision to take up arms, and the rich sardar may have discovered his sons’ tortured corpses on an abandoned road. The boy I met had once been part of a separatist organisation, but had since left it, and while his two brothers had been ‘disappeared’ by the state, neighbouring friends had been kidnapped by separatist and Islamist militants. Rather than try to make sense of these knottier, more complex stories, books such as Qadir’s take a bird’s eye view that fails to challenge fundamental myths about Balochistan.

One of the most important — and faulty — myths is this: Balochistan is ruled by evil sardars who stoke armed militancy by misleading and abusing their innocent, impoverished underlings. Moreover, these vile sardars are intent on breaking Pakistan because they are greedy drug barons funded by India and hungry to get their claws on the minerals under their feet. In fact, at the launch of this book at Bahria University in Karachi, former ambassador Najmuddin Shaikh reiterated this narrative when he said that Balochistan’s problems were because of the “iron rule of the sardars and little effort to rid the Baloch of the burden.” By using a greed/grievance framework, Qadir reproduces the binary of perpetrator/victim that is so central to this myth.

By doing so, Qadir ignores two important facts about the ongoing insurgency.

First, that a large share of the sardars are, in fact, with the state and against the insurgency. This includes the likes of Nawab Changez Marri, the putative heir to the leadership of the Marris after the passing of his father Khair Bakhsh Marri in 2014. And, it is consistent with the historic alliance between the state and so-called ‘tribal’ leadership since the former was first established under British colonial rule. Drug barons also require some levels of state collaboration in order to function: an alleged drug trafficker’s son was famously a parliamentarian and enjoys close relations with the government. These are points that Qadir fails to mention, least of all unpack, in his book.

Second, that the current political and armed opposition consists of a cross-community and cross-class alliance of separatists, with a particularly high proportion of middle-class students, professionals and intellectuals providing the bulk of political energy. Baloch nationalists working with and against the government have a long history of criticising ‘tribal’ leadership which dates back to their emergence in the early 20th century among civil servants in Kalat State. The Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) — which mobilises young Baloch and feeds them into both anti- and pro-Pakistani organisations, and is now split into factions — has been critical of sardariyat, as the system of tribal leadership is called, ever since the BSO was originally founded in Karachi in 1967.

The myth of nasty and selfish sardars and helpless and aggrieved victims erases the history and politics of both the state in Balochistan and the ones who have long opposed it within and outside the government. One of the most important erasures includes the long-standing effort by Baloch political parties to force a debate on what Pakistan is, and what it means to be Pakistani.

The demand for a separate state is a relatively recent one, and earlier political and armed opposition was not calling for the secession of Balochistan from Pakistan. In fact, both Khair Bakhsh Marri and Akbar Bugti, notorious as deceased and symbolic leaders of contemporary separatists, once served as ministers. A famous armed uprising under Nawab Mir Nauroz Khan Zarakzai did not oppose Pakistan, but Gen Ayub Khan’s One Unit Policy. And it was not until 2002, with the formation of BSO-Azad, that a BSO based on a separatist agenda emerged.

For all the faults of Baloch leaders and movements, many of them have long attempted to transform Pakistan into a multi-national, multi-lingual and multi-religious state with space for everyone, rather than a Punjabi-, Urdu- or Sunni-dominated state with space for the very few. It was the crackdown on these alternate political imaginations calling for different kinds of political dispensation that played a key role in the emergence of an uncompromising separatism. This does not negate that behind every myth lies some truth: Many sardars are selfish and greedy and there are real victims of poverty and violence in Balochistan. Rather, I am arguing that there are other facets that must be understood if we are intellectually honest and politically committed to forging a sustainable future.

This critique is, perhaps, harsh given the current state of affairs surrounding the debate on Balochistan in Pakistan. In fact, Qadir is far more even-handed than most of his colleagues in the armed forces, and certainly far better acquainted with and sympathetic to the extreme deprivation in the region. He begins his book with a touching tribute to the many Baloch he met during his service in Gwadar as a member of the Pakistan Navy and provides important numbers on social indicators such as literacy, infant mortality and sanitation. He attempts to approximate the desires and demands of residents through a survey. He pulls together numbers from the Quetta Police Archives and the South Asian Terrorism Portal. He tries to map insurgent organisations, law enforcement agencies and minerals and resources. And at one point, albeit 100 pages into his book, he even recognises the infamous disappearances through references to reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

At a time when most scholars, journalists and political organisers are threatened into silence when trying to speak about Balochistan, Qadir’s book may be the best we can hope for. Yet, perhaps this is the problem — and the biggest revelation. It is a problem because if we try to write a different kind of story, we risk running into the hard, bloody threats of the state which will not tolerate another explanation. Whether it is the visits by intelligence officers to newspaper editors and journalists or the disappearances of families testifying at courts, there is plenty of evidence that the discourse on Balochistan is tightly policed. And, it is revelatory because it indicates that the state will tolerate some kinds of conversation, though only those that do not fundamentally question the underlying myths that are so crucial to state rule in the province. Qadir’s biggest contribution seems to be that he confirms what we already know: we cannot speak openly about Balochistan.

The reviewer is a doctorial student at the University of Cambridge and was formerly a university lecturer and reporter in Pakistan

Balochistan: Victim of
Greed or Grievances?
By Muhammad Ihsan Qadir
Royal Book Company,
Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694074344
288pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 28th, 2018

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