(I wrote this piece exclusively for the first issue of “India and Global Affairs”, an Indian journal which was launched by Prime Minister Manmohan Sing last month in a New Delhi ceremony.)
By Malik Siraj Akbar
When Pakistan was celebrating its 60th Independence Day on August 14, 2007, hundreds of women observed a ‘black day’ in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. Ironically, the protestors were chanting anti-Pakistan slogans and demanding ‘independence’ for Balochistan, the country’s largest and most backward province.
To most Pakistan-watchers, the demand for ‘independence’ was hardly surprising, given Balochistan’s six-decade old grouse of maltreatment by successive governments. However, the million dollar question the women’s protest posed was: Why have the Baloch not been integrated with the state of Pakistan even six decades after its independence?
History says the Baloch did not willingly join the fledgling State of Pakistan, which was created on the basis of a communal slogan of Islam. In fact, unlike the other ethnic communities of Pakistan, the Baloch were never quite influenced or attracted by Islam. As Janmahmad writes in The Baloch Cultural Heritage: “The majority of Baloch were converted to Islam during the time of Caliph Omar; but they were slow in observing the tenets of the new faith… The Baloch of that period were Muslim only by name and were less observant in their religious duties.”
So, in order to amalgamate the Baloch into Pakistan, the state staunchly used the Islamic card under the shadow of the so-called ‘two-nation theory’ – which in fact clashed with the socio-cultural and regional aspirations of the people o the new state. In fact, in a speech to the Assembly on August 14, 1947, Baloch nationalist leader Ghose Baksh Bizenjo, even contended, with a bit of exaggeration, though, that they have as distinct a civilization as that of Iran or Afghanistan.
During the past 60 years, there have been at least five occasions when the Baloch have clashed with the state on ethnic identity issue. A leading Baloch leader has even quoted the Quran, to claim that ‘there is no such thing as a Muslim nation on the face of the globe,’ adding that ‘ if the mere fact that we are Muslims requires us to join Pakistan, then Afghanistan an Ian, both Islamic countries , should also amalgamate with Pakistan.’
Over the years, the harder the state tried to suppress ethnic nationalism, the more cautious these communities became about the preservation of their identity. But in the strictly centralized state of Pakistan, Islamic nationalism takes precedence over everything else. In keeping with credo, the establishment has not only crushed the individual identities of ethnic groups, it has also blatantly suppressed vernacular languages. For instance, Urdu, which is spoken by only 7.57 per cent of the total population, has been imposed on the rest of the ethnic groups at the cost of their indigenous languages.
Similarly, the state has patronized the right-wing elements to counter the nationalist movement in Balochistan, where it exists in a visibly democratic-cum-militant form. Prior to the deadly conflict in the 1970s, during which the Pakistan army killed around 6,000 Baloch, the Baloch society was largely secular. However, soon after the 1973 insurgency, the state intelligence agencies pumped in hug funds to radicalize the Baloch nationalist mindset with an Islamic version. This was achieved through the right-wing political parties and by financing religious schools that propagated militancy and armed training.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 came as a blessing in disguise for the obscurantist Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. The General exploited the opportunity to bankroll numerous religious schools in Balochistan and finance its religious parties in order to preserve Islam from the ‘infidel Soviet’.
Even today, in Balochistan the budge to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which directly finances these religious schools, is roughly $200 million; in comparison, just over $3 million is allocated o the Ministry of Education.
According to Ahmed Rashid, the author of Taliban: The Story of Afghan Warlords, there were only 900 madrassas in Pakistan in 1971, but by the end of the Zia era in 1988 there were 8000 madrassas and 25,000 unregistered religious schools, with half a million students. These schools were even shut down for months to allow students to participate in the ‘holy war’
Subsequently, Pakistan went overboard in its support for the Taliban regime in Kabul by setting up a telephone network, which, according to Ahmed Rashid, ‘became a part of the Pakistan telephone grid Kandahar could be dialed from anywhere in Pakistan as a domestic call using the pre-fix 081 – the same as Quetta’s prefix.’
Further, during the general elections of 2002, the Pakistani intelligence agencies heavily funded the newly-formed politico-religious alliance, the Muthida Majlis-e-Amal. The MMA emerged victorious with 16 seats in the Balochistan Assembly, enabling it to form a coalition government along with the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam). The MMA went on to support the PML-Q’s recommendations to the federal government to launch a military operation against the Baloch people who were demanding maximum provincial autonomy and a greater share in national resources.
However, despite all these efforts, Pakistani intelligence agencies have not been able to completely weed out the Baloch nationalist movement. The government has repeatedly tried to discredit the Baloch leadership by alleging that they are getting external assistance. But in reality, the nationalist movement has always been led by democratic leaders – like the late Nawab Akbar Bugti, Sardar Attaullah Mengal and Khair Baksh Marri. General Pervez Musharraf may have viewed them as aggressive tribal chiefs and labeled them the ‘Axis of Evil’, but these leaders have been waging a democratic struggle through their political outfits.
In the midst of this tug-of-war between the Baloch nationalists and radical Islamists overtly backed by the state the question whether the Baloch democratic movement can stand up to radical Islam needs attention. Relentless efforts by the state machinery for the past 30 years have not succeeded in radicalizing Baloch society. For example, when US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Baloch populated areas hardly witnessed any protest rally in support of the Taliban regime. On the other hand, massive demonstrations took place in the Pashtun-dominated districts of Balochistan.
The Baloch struggle today, unlike in the past, is largely led by middle-class, educated Baloch who do not come from feudal households. No wonder, even moderate Baloch forces subscribe to the idea that armed resistance is the only solution to the problem of Balochistan.
So what do the Baloch want? In the words of Sardar Attaullah Mengal, the veteran nationalist leader who also served as the first chief minister of Balochistan: “We want the federal government to deal with only three subjects: Foreign affairs, defense and currency. All other matters must be in the hands of the provinces.”
The demand for provincial autonomy is as old as Pakistan’s birth. But the Pakistani ruling class fears that it will lose control over the provinces if it grants absolute autonomy to its federal units, especially Balochistan which shares its borders with Iran and Afghanistan.
When the conflict in Balochistan intensified, the government formed two parliamentary committees on September 23, 2004, ‘to examine the current situation in Balochistan and … to make recommendations to promote inter-provincial harmony and protect the rights of provinces with a view to strengthen the federation.’
Sadly, the second committee, headed by Senator Wasim Sajjad, which was supposed to address the issue of provincial autonomy within 90 days, failed to come up with any proposals even three years after its formation.
While provincial autonomy is a major issue, it is not the only sore point for the Baloch. And even if the government were to accede to their demand, it would still be a limited, or rater token, autonomy for the provinces. Besides, there is no guarantee that it will address the major complaints of under representation of the Baloch in the Pakistani federation. For instance, the Baloch have a mere one per cent representation in the armed forces, similarly, only two Baloch enjoy ambassadorial postings aboard; not a single Baloch has made it as the judge of Pakistan Supreme Court’ and there is no Baloch among the 40 serving federal secretaries.
Of course, some sections of public opinion expect a change in the status quo in the backdrop of the government’s bid to smother Baloch nationalism with the help of Islamists. They view the ongoing conflict between the Pakistan army and the religious forces across the county as a symptom of change. They also predict a change in the military’s bedfellows and the emergence of a nexus between the army and the Baloch.
However, Siddiq Baluch, editor of the English language newspaper, Balochistan Express, does not see this happening in the foreseeable future. “There is a single-point deadlock between the military and the religious forces and that, too, is on the external front: The pro-US policy of the present regime,” he says. According to him, the conflict between the military and the Right is short-term, while the army and the Right are long-term partners in pulverizing the Baloch.
Unless the state recognizes the Baloch as an older entity than Islam and Pakistan, a peaceful solution to the ongoing vendetta is unlikely in the foreseeable future.