Baloch question

Published December 22, 2023
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad

THERE is no single issue that clarifies one’s political position in Pakistan than the Baloch question. This was made brutally clear this past Wednesday night when a caravan of peaceful, unarmed protesters who had made their way to Islamabad from Turbat were violently refused entry into the federal capital.

In the preceding few weeks, the Baloch long march had literally made waves, mobilising thousands of Baloch women, men and children, along with progressive political workers, ethnic-nationalists hailing from other communities, as well as ordinary people.

Led by young women, the caravan snaked through Balochistan and then the Seraiki, Pakhtun and Punjabi heartlands. It was the most meaningful expression of democratic aspirations and what a voluntary federation could look like in recent times. And then they reached the outskirts of Islamabad.

The demands of the marchers are simple enough, but it is precisely their simplicity that is unpalatable to those who rule us: to bring an end to the dastardly practice of enforced disappearances, as well as ‘encounter killings’, which is what triggered the initial protest in Turbat and accountability for those who are known to be complicit in all such practices. Simple demands, with earth-shattering implications.

Why is it that raising such demands is so taboo? And why is it especially taboo for Baloch youth to state what pretty much everyone in Pakistan already knows: that there are some functionaries of the state who do what they want and cannot be held to account.

Their language was, in fact, a plea to be heard.

It is telling that while the long march was making its way through the country, mainstream parties were busy wooing Balochistan’s proverbial electables. Sarfraz Bugti, the caretaker interior minister who resigned as soon as the Election Commission confirmed the Feb 8 poll date, was in particular demand. He eventually joined the PPP.

The caretaker prime minister also hails from Balochistan. In the aftermath of the violent crackdown on the long marchers, it was reported that he took urgent notice. As did the Islamabad High Court after a petition was filed on behalf of the hundreds who were detained. Which begs the question: why is it that the Baloch are repeatedly brutalised and nominal remedial action taken only after more salt is rubbed in their already gaping wounds?

Zubeida Mustafa wrote last week on these pages about the systemic and systematic oppression that steadily increased disaffection amongst the Bengalis and led to the eventual creation of Bangladesh.

One presumably writes such words in the hope that the lessons of history are learned, but the Baloch question makes clear not only that nothing has been learned but that the state is even more militarised now.

Indeed, the scenes on the outskirts of Islamabad this past week make it more difficult to convince the sceptics that a democratic federation in which ethnic nations like the Baloch enjoy genuine citizenship is still a possibility. To be sure, there is no other way to describe the attitudes and actions of those who rule us as old-fashioned colonial statecraft.

The marchers asked to be let into the federal capital and be allowed to say their piece. Their language was not incendiary — it was, in fact, a plea to be heard. They certainly did not come with the loftiest of expectations, given the historical track record.

This is precisely why the young women and mothers who came on foot to what is supposed to be the symbol of the federation, simply asking to be allowed to make their way to a peaceful protest camp, should not have been baton-charged, hosed with water cannons and bundled into police vans.

Mainstream Pak­is­­tan has been exposed to some of these tactics in recent months, especially those who continue to pledge their allegiance to the jailed former prime minister. Many of those who have now experienced the big stick ask rhetorically how and why they are being treated so brutally.

The truth is that they are only now being subjected to the treatment that many Baloch and those who have stood in solidarity with them suffered for a long time. To recognise this is to truly open up the possibility of a deeper democratic struggle in which the most oppressed is given centrality.

Indeed, the solidarities that were expressed along the route of the long march should not be forgotten in the clamour of what happened when it actually entered Islamabad.

The establishment will not be held to account by bourgeois politicians who want to cosy up to it. The only hope is for all progressives — and the ordinary people who came out onto the streets to make clear their abhorrence for disappearances and ‘encounter’ killings — to recognise that that can maybe, just maybe, still lead to a just and democratic future.

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

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2023

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