BALOCHISTAN is a paradox — like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that do not fit. The recent tragedy — the brutal mass murder of 11 Hazara miners in Mach — is testimony to this paradox. It is bizarre that, periodically, a cultured people with a rich tradition of poetry and learning should be subjected to such atrocity on the soil of Balochistan by brutes under the protection of non-Baloch.
There are more contradictions that would puzzle the uninformed. Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province area-wise but has the smallest population. It is the richest in natural resources but its inhabitants are the most impoverished. It is also the most underdeveloped of all provinces.
The most notable contradiction is in education. Balochistan has the lowest literacy rate and the highest ratio of out-of-school children. Schools are few, inaccessible and a number of them are non-functional. But the people’s love of learning and scholarship is in inverse proportion to the facilities available to them. The people who have the opportunity go the extra mile to grab it. True, many other regions in Pakistan are similarly deprived but few protest.
I gained more insight into how activism can change a dismal situation when I went through the book Awaran se Yaari, co-authored by Abid Mir and Shabir Rakshani. The latter is the little boy from Awaran, now a young man with a Master’s degree, whose love for education for all is legendary. He now writes about why he became an activist. He says he has not forgotten the day when he was five years old and his teary-eyed mother bid him farewell as she sent him away to school 50 kilometres away. The “anguish of separation,” he writes, robbed him of his childhood. The unanswered question that has haunted him ever since is, “Why couldn’t my village have a school?”
‘Why couldn’t my village have a school?’
Lucid and readable (but with too many typos), this inspiring little book is truly a primer for education activists. I asked Shabir why he chose to write in Urdu; he replied he wanted the rulers to read it and they can’t read Balochi. But he must rewrite the book in Balochi, Brahui and Pashto.
What is the book about? It foremost documents Shabir’s love of learning and his ambition to provide the opportunity of schooling to every Baloch child. And he wants the government to do it.
Activism on educational issues can only make an impact if the affected stakeholders are mobilised to play a participatory role in the exercise.
The strategy adopted by Shabir in Awaran was to organise the Balochistan education system with the aim of reviving the non-functional schools in his district. He involved the people in collecting information from their own areas about non-functional schools and absentee teachers. This information was publicised on social media. Then followed petitions and visits to local and provincial education officials, who were forced to respond. Where officials chose to ignore the complaints, there were higher functionaries and political representatives to approach. No avenue — as long as it was peaceful — was left unexplored. As a result, 200 non-functional schools and 210 absentee teachers were identified.
Another important measure taken was to engage the students, even young ones, in this exercise. Well-attended book festivals and arts and essay competitions were organised inside and outside schools and children were invited to come and paint their classrooms.
The next logical step would have been to get the schools reactivated and the teachers replaced. But this did not happen. At the start of the movement, those with vested interests were upset and had responded angrily. Shabir and his colleagues were attacked. For a time they decided to move out of the area. The pandemic and shutdown came to the rescue of those who prefer to keep children in the darkness of ignorance. With the closure of schools, the first phase of the education drive came to a standstill.
Again one would wonder at this paradox. Why should any move to educate children in such a backward region as Balochistan provoke the powers that be? What hurts the privileged is the enlightened approach of the Baloch to education. Abid Mir, a writer, recalls how the book festivals became a big hit as their attendance grew and the sales rose from Rs16,000 in 2012 in Noshki to Rs1,600,000 in Gwadar in 2019.
The fact is that progressive education in a language he understands enhances the child’s awareness and instils in him the capacity to think. This is dangerous for the power elites who have so far kept the province so backward and oppressed. The Baloch understand this especially in the context of education.
Hence the Baloch ask: why this injustice? But the downtrodden in the rest of the country do not ask this question, though injustice is inflicted on them too, and fail to understand the link between the lack of education and exploitation. A person who is not taught to think will never ask: why this injustice?
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2021