EDUCATED Baloch youth face an image problem in urban Pakistan, mainly in Punjab which controls the country’s sociopolitical narratives. Security institutions, the intelligentsia, the media, even educationists and civil society construct the image of the Baloch youth in a negative way. It goes beyond the image of the angry Baloch. They build an image of a tribal man unfamiliar with urban ‘manners’, unschooled in religion and politically charged, one who does not believe in (state-crafted) nationalism. Such a projection harms the Baloch, including the educated ones, perhaps more than all the repression they have been facing.
The myths surrounding the Baloch must be dispelled. The Baloch youth’s interaction with the rest of the country has expanded enormously in recent years. A major contributory factor has been their admission in universities in Punjab either on the basis of their own merit or the quota the government has reserved for them. Sardars still love to send their children to British-age imperial schools and colleges. However, middle-class parents are also sending their offspring to Punjab to public and private educational institutions for better opportunities and to save them from both, the insurgents and surveillance by the security agencies.
Karachi is a second home for the Baloch, especially for those from the coastal areas. They have learned the art of living in a metropolis. Karachi may not have nurtured the stereotype, but it is not breaking the myths surrounding the Baloch either.
There is a perception that the Baloch have highly secular tendencies and are thus less religious, which makes them prone to absorbing Indian and Western propaganda. Perhaps this rings true for some sardars and power elites of the province, but the common Baloch is as practising a Muslim as an inhabitant of Punjab. When state institutions use religion for ethnic profiling, it ultimately triggers a process of ‘otherisation’. The Baloch are vulnerable to religious sensitivities and associated violent and non-violent extremist tendencies. The JUI-F and its factions have political influence not only in the Pakhtun-dominated areas but also in the western part of Balochistan.
The libraries in Balochistan are more crowded compared to those in other provinces.
While travelling from Karachi to Quetta, one can witness extensive graffiti by religious groups, including the TLP, and banned sectarian outfits. In a negative sense, Al Qaeda and other international militant organisations have many Baloch in their fold, along with other nationalities, but even this fact has failed to break the myth of Baloch ‘secularity’. When the media highlights a suspected nexus between the Baloch insurgents and the TTP, it is also read as an unholy alliance between the pawns of external forces.
Undoubtedly, Baloch insurgent groups are inclined towards leftist ideology like many other separatist movements in South Asia and regions beyond. These movements have blended leftist ideology with nationalism, but it doesn’t mean they are anti-religion. Nationalist politics influences the separatist movement, but Baloch nationalist politics has remained under the influence of Muslim nationalist tendencies since its inception after World War I. In this regard, Shah Muhammad Marri, a leading Baloch historian, compiled an interesting account of that part of history.
However, this is not about history, but the deeply entrenched myths in urban Pakistan about the Baloch. Countering these myths though, are sections of the progressive intelligentsia that often refer to the educated Baloch as the most well-read youth in Pakistan, and as proof, point to the record sale of books at literature festivals in Balochistan. The libraries in Balochistan are more crowded compared to those in other provinces. On a recent visit to different parts of Balochistan, including the small town of Nushki, one witnessed a large number of youth in libraries. However, most of the youth go to libraries to utilise the resources to study for professional and civil services examinations.
Reference books are expensive and not easily available in small towns. Internet connectivity is also very poor, and the youth have no other option but to spend more time in libraries, where they do not face long spells of loadshedding as many libraries are located within the premises of the district administration.
Educated Baloch youth are often attracted to the bureaucracy, security institutions, and other public services, which can empower them economically and socially — no different from youth in other parts of the country, who have similar dreams. However, the pursuit of knowledge and a better life becomes a crime when the Baloch raise critical questions.
Balochistan’s educated youth interact with progressive intelligentsia more than the youth in the rest of urban Pakistan, and read the works of popular historians and intellectuals from Punjab. But even reading these writers in Urdu does not save them from the high surveillance of the security agencies. Progressive thinking helps them to think politically, but it also increases the risk of detachment from mainstream thinking.
The news of the disappearance of an educated youth causes more anger as this is perceived as an action carried out by the state institutions, which are viewed as opposed to mainstreaming Baloch youth. The security apparatus has no appetite for progressive ideas, social change, and freedom of expression, and they see the Baloch youth through a narrow ideological prism, designed around the two-nation theory and binary thinking.
Stigmatising and labelling pushes Balochistan’s marginalised youth deeper into an identity crisis. This is more dangerous than ignoring their legitimate demand for resource distribution and political empowerment. The identity crisis catalyses grievances. This is not hard to understand. When Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman of Haq Do Tehreek fails, with all his religious credentials and struggle within the constitutional domain, and when the establishment-supported chief minister boycotts the federal budget and the National Economic Council meeting, then what kind of signals are being sent to the ordinary people of Balochistan?
Economic, social and political disparities cannot nurture uniform thinking — this is equally true for both Gwadar and Lahore.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2023