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Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Watchful Eye 

The ethnic origins and socio-political arc of Balochistan are contextualised in this detailed account

Written by Rana Banerji | New Delhi | Updated: August 31, 2019 12:02:54 am
Pakistan: The Balochistan Conundrum Tilak Devasher Harper Collins India 392 pages ` 899

The Balochistan Conundrum is a cogently analysed treatise on the largest, most sparsely populated, yet most troublesome province of Pakistan. Divided into six sections, the book begins with a bird’s eye view of the geography, demography and ethnic mosaic of the land. The author looks in depth at the etymological origins of the Baloch, and the “unique demographic-cum-territorial configuration” which evolved in the province. The Brahui, of ethnic Dravidian origin from the south and central areas mingled with the Pashtuns from the north. Punjabi settlers came in to contiguous western districts. Hazaras came in from the northern parts of the North West Frontier Province and even Afghanistan, as nomads, like the Baloch themselves. But they had to unfortunately face endemic sectarian persecution at the hands of Sunni radicals, often under ill-concealed State instigation. This analysis corroborates former Pakistani diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi who described it as far back as in June, 2010, as a “disastrous policy of relying on Pashtuns and non-locals to counter Baloch grievance-based aspirations”.

In Section II, the author delves into “the indelible historical memories” of the Baloch narrative, which fostered their alienation. The betrayal of the Khan of Kalat (Mir Ahmed Khan) in 1947-48 by Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah is starkly painted in black, as are the post-accession insurgencies of 1958 (led by Nawab Nauroz Khan, who became a symbol of the Baloch independence movement) and 1962 (led by the Marxist Sher Mohammad Marri). The 1973 uprising was crushed most ruthlessly, with the Pakistan Army strafing even civilian-inhabited areas during the Chamalang battle of 1974.

Section III brings out the systematic economic, political and administrative marginalisation of its people. The author tellingly cites an official White Paper of the Finance Department of the Balochistan provincial government to depict “the grip of poverty and deprivation” the common people found themselves in, even 70 years after independence.

Attractively titled ‘Chinese Gambit’, Section IV deals with the development of Gwadar port and the strategically important China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which have been billed as game changers for Pakistan. The endemic water shortages facing the region, inadequate planning by the state to manage infrastructural shortfalls and other administrative bungling, acting in haste to consolidate geo-strategic gains, if only to oblige a domineering China, reveal how grandiose dreams may yet slip between cup and lip, while taking the “golden chalice” of Chinese aid. Section V looks at the phenomenon of “missing persons”. The herculean work of Mama Qadeer Baloch’s Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) and his Long March from Quetta to Islamabad of October, 2013 are described here. Specific cases of disappearances and killings are detailed, including that of prominent women’s rights activist Sabeen Mehmud in Karachi, in April, 2015, after she ignored warnings to cancel a discussion on the subject.

Two small chapters add great value to the book, dealing with the dilemma faced by the judiciary and the media in coping with the Baloch problem. The judiciary looked askance, alas only intermittently, at the involvement and culpability of the state’s security agencies in the “enforced disappearances” of Baloch activists. The media sporadically raised their voice over the mysterious elimination of even “moderate Baloch nationalists”, by militias which appeared suddenly, like the Baloch Musallah Defai Tanzeem (BMDT), who were possibly behind the killings of popular activist, Maula Baksh Dasti, and famous poet, Habib Jalib Baloch, in July 2010.

The separatist challenge in the province, in both the aspects of politics and insurgency, is looked at in Section VI. Moderate Baloch nationalists like Akhtar Mengal voiced their grievances often enough but found little succour, despite pious promises. With great perspicacity, the author explains the causes and changing nature of the insurgency, wherein separatists ultimately broke away from the tutelage of Baloch Sardars, with educated middle-class leaders like Dr Allah Nazar of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) leading the way. In January, 2006, the alleged rape of a Shazia Khalid, a doctor working with the Sui Gas company, by an army captain, Hammad, strongly offended Baloch tribal moral codes. The military establishment hushed up the case. Matters came to a head in August, 2006, with the killing of Sardar Akbar Bugti in a chilling military action.

After his seminal work, Courting the Abyss, Devasher sums up this hard-hitting tome by pointedly stressing that the Balochistan conundrum has resulted from the “State trying to resolve a serious political issue militarily; instead of using a surgeon’s delicate touch, Pakistan may be using a butcher’s cleaver.”

This work is easily the most comprehensive and timely study of Balochistan by an Indian scholar. He has approached this subject in a manner which should benefit all serious students wishing to understand the complexities and travails which plague this hapless province of Pakistan.

Banerji is former special secretary, cabinet secretariat

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