History and truth

Published November 26, 2021
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

IT has been almost three weeks since students went on strike at Balochistan University, the flagship educational institution in Pakistan’s biggest and most brutalised province. In the same time period, thousands of Gwadar’s residents have been on the roads in protest. The Quetta students are calling attention to the abduction of two of their peers, while Gwadar locals are demanding provision of basic amenities like water and electricity. Unsurprisingly, both of these peaceful and totally justified protests have found little or no space in the mainstream media.

It may have been said many times but it must be said again: Balochistan continues to be treated little better than a colony in contemporary Pakistan. Some Baloch, as well as Pakhtuns and Hazaras, are integrated into mainstream Pakistani economic, political and cultural life. But the logics of uneven development and colonial statecraft still over-determine Balochistan’s relationship with the rest of Pakistan. Unless this is acknowledged — and practices such as enforced disappearances ended — the alienation felt by so many in Balochistan, particularly Baloch youth, won’t go away.

Different though they may be, an analogy can be drawn between the Baloch national question and the case of indigenous peoples in the world’s most powerful country, America. The US just ‘celebrated’ the public holiday known as ‘Thanksgiving’, an annual commemoration of the ‘sacrifices’ of the first European settlers in North America four centuries ago.

US official history revolves around the premise that the American continent was ‘discovered’ by Europeans, and that settlers proceeded to come and establish a ‘civilised’ society on virgin lands. It glosses over the violence visited by settlers upon native people. So while mainstream Americans give thanks for the establishment of the US, native populations — whose settlements now resemble ghettoes — mourn a history of killings and oppression.

There is no concern for Baloch protests.

History always has two sides, and most of us tend to critically adopt the dominant version propagated by the modern nation state. To excavate suppressed histories is in itself an emancipatory gesture, an expression of commitment to the unfinished matter of decolonisation.

It is, for instance, a matter of fact that the Khan of Kalat, who wanted an independent state, originally refused to accede to Pakistan, and that military personnel were sent into Baloch territories to ensure the latter’s ‘accession’. It is also a fact that many luminaries of Baloch nationalism over the past 75 years have been forced to the wall after having tried repeatedly to enter the political mainstream, most notably in the 1970s when the National Awami Party was elected to govern Balochistan with Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo as governor and Sardar Attaullah Mengal as chief minister. Almost 50 years later, parliamentary politics in Balochistan has been reduced to little more than a puppet show, exemplified by the current ‘king’s party’, Balochistan Awami Party.

Many hundred years after the US settler colonial project was initiated, the indigenous peoples that populated the American continent before its ‘discovery’ still largely remain second-class citizens. In some decades or even centuries down the line, will Baloch and other similarly subjugated populations continue to consider themselves colonial subjects? Yes, the US may have the world’s biggest and most powerful army, it may dictate to the world at will and it may have dumbed down many ordinary Americans through the provision of great material comfort, but in recent years it has become sufficiently clear that American society is also deeply unjust and unequal, that it is badly divided along racial lines, that the legacy of colonialism is alive and well.

As has happened many times in the past while Baloch peoples ask to be seen, mainstream Pakistan is today more interested in the palace intrigues of the judiciary, generals and a political elite that continues to demonstrate that its primary concern is power acquisition within the framework of the establishment-centric system.

It is not unimportant to demand accountability of judges and generals who are, among other things, responsible for the ongoing treatment meted out to ethnic peripheries, particularly Balochistan. But the stark lack of concern amongst even opposition parties for the student protesters in Quetta and Gwadar’s working masses confirms that that the ruling class at large is collectively committed to suppressing political forces that resort to colonial statecraft and exploitation of the Baloch people and Balochistan’s resources.

The mainstream continues to ignore these festering wounds at its peril. Suppressed histories continue to rear their head until they are acknowledged, and justice done. Sloganeering about ‘national security’ and ‘development’ will never generate meaningful resolution of the Baloch question.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2021

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