What the Baloch want

Published December 26, 2023
The writer is a journalist
The writer is a journalist

EARLY on Sunday, there were few people in the green areas in front of the Islamabad Press Club. The rows of quietly seated protesters were missing as were the cameras and visitors.

The camp was just waking up. The young men were busy fixing the tent, straightening out rugs, etc. One of them carried away a ring-light and stand used with phone cameras. Most were masked, but there was little uniformity in hairstyle or clothes. From shalwar kameez to jeans to heavy Balochi shalwars, one could see it all.

A small group of women sat in a corner. Their crumpled clothes and mussed-up hair under chadors or dupattas indicated the day was just beginning. Most were young. One was studying in a school in Karachi where her family was based; another in a university in Balochistan; a third, head on her knee as if she still had some more sleep in her, was also in school. One of her companions pointed to the sleepy one and told a visiting delegation that her father had disappeared before she was born.

Another young woman walked up. She was a housewife but had finished her schooling before marriage. Her youngest child, a toddler, was with her. I have been taking part in these protests since 2016 when my brother disappeared; he had just been married a year or so before, she said.

It was not possible for women to step outside the home in those days, she added. But now I have seen many parts of Pakistan, she said with a laugh, with more than a note of bitterness. I was here in Islamabad in 2021 also.

Most of the women were young and educated, and hailed from middle-class backgrounds. In this and their presence in Islamabad lies the changing environment of Balochistan’s politics and society. Sammi Baloch and Mahrang Baloch are not outliers, even though they have become the face of this particular march.

The protesting Baloch citizens in Islamabad and beyond are reflecting a new reality.

This longest-running insurgency in Balochistan has been led by the middle class from the province’s non-tribal areas. Those who are picked up and those who fight for their return are both from this class, and not the tribal sardars who continue to be the face of Balochistan in Islamabad.

The sardars and other MNAs are the first to be maligned when the issue of Balochistan’s development comes up and the first to be co-opted economically and politically. But more and more, it appears, they are irrelevant for the people.

Why else would they be absent from this protest camp in Islamabad where young men and women dominate, negotiating with ministers, facing the cameras and press and greeting those who come to show sympathy? The absence of those who represent Balochistan in parliament reveals the disconnect between the electoral exercise and Baloch people.

It is perhaps not an unfamiliar point to anyone interested in the issue. But circumstances of class and unrepresentative politics have led to the emergence of a form of political protest which is now prevalent in Balochistan and KP. The protests for the disappeared and those led by the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement follow a common path; citizen protests led by young, educated Pakistanis who have mastered the art of peacefully gathering and confronting a state bent on using force against them.

Among them, young women have also come to the forefront, more so in the case of the Baloch than PTM though they are present in both. The PTM allowed for ordinary women to come forward and tell their stories of suffering at public gatherings while Baloch women stepped out of their homes to lead the protest for missing relatives.

But there is more to these protests, for they take place in a Pakistan where distances are becoming shorter, physically and otherwise.

Social media is one explanation. Smartphones have allowed dissent to be communicated in a way that the state is struggling to deal with. Take the Baloch protesters. Their protest in Turbat and entire journey to Islamabad was covered on social media as was the ham-handed manner in which police tried to disperse, arrest and ‘deport’ them.

It was social media coverage and the reaction to it (especially from diplomats) which has put the state on the back foot. It is now reduced to intimidatory tactics such as deploying police and anti-terrorist personnel at the protest point and pushing activities of alleged terrorists on mainstream media — all countered by smartphone-yielding youth.

There is more. Over the decades, Pakistan has shrunk in a way. More and more protesters from the peripheries are now reaching Islamabad where their stories are heard more widely. Contrast the Chaman sit-in with the long march from Turbat which reached Islamabad. This was not just made easier by the road network but also internal migration.

Over the years, many Baloch and Pakhtuns have moved out of conflict areas to urban centres such as Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Many have moved for employment and others for education. This has also created networks which make such protests and visibility possible.

Journalists and researchers such as Zia ur Rehman argue this has exposed Baloch students to left-wing parties and mentors outside their own province. As the state continues with its age-old tactics such as arrests, disappearances and force, it can no longer do so as invisibly as it can in the peripheries.

Consider the FIRs against Punjab University students during the PTI tenure, which made it to the National Assembly, or the viral footage of a student being abducted from Punjab university.

The point is not to state the obvious but to argue that in a changing Pakistan, protesting Baloch citizens in Islamabad and beyond are simply reflecting a new reality. On the other hand, the state is still employing the old, ineffective rulebook.

It has to engage these young people and the middle classes, instead of silencing them. Such engagement means allowing Balochistan’s people to choose their own representatives.

Without this, people will have no choice but to turn to violence or protests, because parliamentary politics here is not providing any answers to those in whose name it claims legitimacy. Islamabad’s protest camp symbolises the failure of our politics.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2023

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