Our festering wound

Published May 3, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN the midst of political infighting, we were reminded of our festering wounds by the recent blast at the University of Karachi. The attack on a van in our biggest city would perhaps have been forgotten sooner, amidst the exciting politics and the Eid festivities, had it not been for the alleged perpetrator — a woman suicide bomber.

Her gender and her background has led to a renewed debate about Balochistan, which under normal circumstances we prefer to ignore. Indeed, the average Pakistani is as aware of the province as the average American perhaps is of Pakistan. But acts of violence force us to pay attention to that which is ignored or kept invisible. And so it was with this attack.

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Shaari Baloch, the alleged attacker, was not just a woman but a highly educated one. A school teacher with a degree in zoology, according to a report in Al Jazeera, she was also enrolled in a second Master’s degree course. The story further reported that her “husband is a dentist and professor at Makran Medical College in southern Balochistan. Her father is a retired civil servant who worked as a registrar at the University of Turbat, her hometown,” while her three brothers include a doctor, a deputy director at a government-funded project, and a civil servant.

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Her identity and education, which throws light on her socioeconomic background, has caught many by surprise, leading them to ask questions anew about the insurgency. But is it all that surprising? Tactics and strategies of violence aside, the surprise over the identity of the attacker simply reveals the patchy information about Balochistan in the rest of the country. And this includes the media — for, most of us are still used to the trope of the proud tribal sardars leading their men into a battle against the state.

Confidence-building measures will be needed first in Balochistan.

But even a cursory glance at the larger themes which are covered sporadically by the mainstream media should be enough to suggest otherwise. The constant news about the enforced disappearances of Baloch students from urban centres (and not just remote areas in Balochistan); the use of social media and the proliferation of news websites being run by Baloch which are being blocked by the authorities in an effort to stop the dissemination of information about the province; and the emergence of militant organisation leaders such as Dr Allah Nazar should all have made us think.

If nothing else, the death of Karima Baloch, a female rights activist who sought asylum in Canada, should have been a hint. But we would all need to take more than a cursory interest to connect the dots. The information has been there for years, for those who pay attention.

Back in 2012, Mahvish Ahmed wrote in Dawn about “the six 20-something Baloch Student Organisation-Azad (BSO-Azad) members sitting cross-legged on the floor of their dorm room [who] come across as more diligent than unruly, and more revolutionary than submissive,” adding that they were “urbanised, middle-class, educated, and typically allied as equals rather than serving as underlings to the separatist Bugti and Marri sardars of Balochistan”.

A year later, a report produced by the Carnegie Institute commented, “Many Baloch nationalist leaders now come from the urbanised districts of Kech, Panjgur, and Gwadar (and to a lesser extent from Quetta, Khuzdar, Turbat, Kharan, and Lasbela). They are well-connected to Karachi and Gulf cities, where tribal structures are non-existent. In fact, while there is violence all over the province, the insurgency seems to concentrate mainly in these urbanised areas. The Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that operates in Pakistan’s border provinces, has apparently concentrated much of its 50,000-man strength in Balochistan in the southwestern areas of the province, mostly in the Panjgur, Turbat and Kech districts.”

Others have pointed out that this is why the insurgency has continued despite the death of tribal leaders such as Akbar Bugti, for this time around it is not only led by the former, but the educated and middle-class Baloch youth too are in the forefront.

Neither is this all that unusual.

In fact, in both Indian Punjab and India-held Kashmir, commentators have linked the beginning of the insurgencies there to improving education standards. For example, the political mobilisation in Kashmir has been linked to growing literacy — from 1971 to 1981, literacy grew by around 40 per cent in occupied Jammu and Kashmir according to one account. Similarly, in Indian Punjab, researchers pointed out that the lack of employment opportunities for the educated youth was a factor behind the dissatisfaction that fed into the unrest in the 1980s.

But the parallel doesn’t just end here. The governments in the subcontinent also tend to deal with insurgencies with the same heavy hand — centralised rule and the use of violence. And this exacerbates the situation.

As has been pointed out again and again, dialogue instead of heavy-handed coercion is the only way forward. But this will require time and effort both, for after years of violence the distrust is pervasive and will not be easy to dissipate.

Confidence-building measures will be needed first in Balochistan, such as resolving the missing people issue; this can lead to an environment that is conducive to talks. And then talks can be held. They need to be led by the political class, which must have the power and authority required to make them a success. A repeat of what happened during the Musharraf period or the 2013 tenure will not fix matters, where politicians held talks only for the latter to be scuttled later by the powers that be; this will simply undermine the little credibility and trust that is left — if any remains. But this can happen only if there is realisation that political problems cannot be fixed through an approach which puts security first.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2022

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