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Listen to the people

June 08, 2011

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THE prime minister has paid a brief visit to Quetta. He might have received detailed reports on the situation in Balochistan from provincial ministers, senior bureaucrats and political workers of different hues. It is doubtful if he had the time to listen to what the khalq-i-Khuda (the people) are saying in Quetta and elsewhere.

Did the provincial government tell the prime minister how greatly their writ has been circumscribed and how helpless they have become? Was it possible for anyone to give Mr Gilani a full measure of the grief and anger that has been the lot of the Balochistan people for years?

No detailed studies are needed to diagnose the malignancy that is corroding the hearts and minds of the people of Balochistan. Their anxieties and their feelings of despair can be smelt in the dust-laden air of Quetta and more deeply felt if one talks to somebody from Gwadar, or Khuzdar or Naseerabad.

The population of Quetta has never been weighed down with fear so much as it is today. A woman known for her active espousal of women’s rights, who has been working outside her home for years, says: ‘Fear has not only affected my mental health, I feel I am half dead already.”

Balochistan is in mourning for 144 of its citizens whose mutilated corpses have been found dumped across the province over a year. The lament of women deprived of their breadwinners can be heard in different parts of the provincial capital itself. This wail grows louder and louder as you travel to Turbat or Gwadar, from where the largest groups of the victims came. The simple Baloch may not have been blessed with the wisdom granted to the exalted nobility of Islamabad but they do know about the foremost duty of a state to find out how and why and by whom its citizens are deprived of their most fundamental right to life. They cannot be satisfied with the stock denial ‘we haven’t done this’, because they are convinced of the state’s obligation to track down the culprits and punish them, whoever they may be.

It is also not difficult to find out what a festering sore the matter of involuntary disappearances has become. A visit to the Quetta Press Club enables any state functionary to see that many members of the families of the disappeared ones have been reduced to skeletons by years of protest and suffering.

The whole of Quetta is talking about the letter sent to the Hazaras. The authors of the venomous note claim to be Lashkar- i-Jhangvi Pakistan (Balochistan Unit) and it says that the Shias have no right to live in Pakistan. The letter claims credit for killing the Shias in Afghanistan during the jihad and for successful operations in Parachinar. It says the next targets are the Hazaras’ houses on Alamdar Road and concludes with the warning that anti-Hazara activities will continue until “our innocent colleagues are released”.

A Karachi-based campaigner for women’s rights wanted to ask the interior minister as to why the intelligence agencies had failed to track down the extremists who were threatening the Hazaras. Apparently she did not know about chiragh talay andhera (darkness under the lamp).

One wonders whether the prime minister had the time to inquire about the Hazara families who spend their days in the graveyard, partly because they consider themselves safer there than in their homes.

Ask any person in Quetta — if he/she is prepared to talk to an outsider, for fear has made the people silent — as to what do the people of Balochistan want the most and nine out of 10 interlocutors will say “put the intelligence agencies on a tight leash and withdraw the FC [Frontier Constabulary]”. The intelligence agencies are blamed for the grand design against Balochistan’s rights while the FC is castigated for the killings and the humiliation the Baloch suffer every day.

The killing of the Russians/Chechens near Quetta has unnerved a large number of people. “If they can kill foreign nationals with impunity, they are unlikely to spare us,” says a Quetta teacher who considers the killing of Prof Sabad Dashtiari especially unbearable.

Stories of the FC officers’ arrogance can be heard in all major cities of the province. One divisional commissioner tells you how his plea for reasonableness was contemptuously dismissed by an FC officer. Another commissioner tells human rights activists that they could approach international organisations regarding the killing of Naeem Sabir and Siddiq Eido but “nobody is prepared to listen to me here”.

Of course, the people of Balochistan have a lot more to say. Wherever you go in the province you will be told of educational institutions that do not have teachers/principals. In Kalat, girls are not sent to a girls’ college because the teachers are men.

You will be told of the huge losses the farmers in Qila Saifullah have suffered due to drought and shortage of water, of the problems created in Chaman by the 125km-long ditch to mark the border with Afghanistan, of the non-completion of the rehabilitation of internally displaced or the flood-affected of 2006.

Much will be said about the poor state of roads. For instance, the Turbat-Punjgoor-Quetta road is described as the worst highway, because of which a Turbat man wanting to arrive in Quetta in one piece first goes to Karachi (12 hours) and from there to Quetta (another 11 hours).

The prime minister might have received ‘sub-achha’ reports about the Balochistan reform package. Yes, several thousand teachers have been appointed across the province for one year only. But the whole scheme reeks of scandal. Jobs have been given to the well-connected, many of whom collect salaries without doing any work. The scheme is bound to fail, says a senior civil servant.

Many a Baloch will tell you of the games the security people play. For instance, they did not want the prime minister’s visit to Quetta announced in advance. However, many people did come to know of it when room bookings at the MPA Hostel were cancelled to accommodate the prime minister’s advance party. On Sunday, the entire road to the airport was deserted — under orders. All shops that are open on Sundays were closed. Armed policemen lined the thoroughfare on both sides with police vehicles parked every furlong or so. The airport was swarming with policemen. The domestic departure lounge was closed.

All this appeared unnecessary when Mr Gilani alighted from a PAF plane and flew to Governor House in a helicopter. There was no problem in downloading the dozens of gift packs — presumably meant to sweeten the mouths of the estranged nationalists. In any case, the government deserved credit for maintaining law and order on deserted roads, for guaranteeing the VVIPS full security against the people and saving them from holding dirty hands.

But these are matters that the Balochistan people have been used to since times immemorial. They have infinite capacity for bearing pain and hunger and disease. What they are up against now is the denial of their inherent dignity, their pride as the unspoiled children of their rugged land.