In the 17 years of Pinochet’s military dictatorship in Chile, more than 4,000 people were left either dead or missing. Thousands more were tortured. Similarly, from the Argentinean Dirty War between 1974 and ’83, the official count of the number of “disappeared” persons is as high as 13,000 (though others claim it to be higher still).
Perhaps the reason why we are aware of and remember such bleak moments from our collective history is because they present such an immediate affront to our attention. In other words, they happened so fast. And that is perhaps why so few of us are familiar with the current conflict in Baluchistan. This conflict has been ongoing for the past nearly 70 years, over the course of which more than 10,000 Baluch have disappeared, whether they be dead or locked up in detention centres. Countless others have been executed as a backlash of the conflict and several thousands have had to leave their homes behind. It is no wonder then that journalist Selig Harrison has called this treatment of the Baluch a “slow-motion genocide.”
Baluchistan-Land of the Baluch-is, for the most part, an arid, mountainous region in South-West Asia. The Baluch are an ancient people; their origin is still largely unknown. There is however sufficient evidence that they were nomadic tribesmen and pastoralists. After centuries of movement, they settled into the area today known as the larger Baluchistan region. It was not long after their establishment of a state that Britain invaded and annexed the greater part of Baluchistan, the rest being divided between Iran and Afghanistan. The British portion of Baluchistan was granted autonomy as per its wishes when the British left the subcontinent in 1947, but this freedom, too, was short lived. The newly formed independent state of Pakistan employed its military and forcefully had Baluchistan accede to Pakistan. Ever since then, the Baluch have seen their land as occupied by Pakistan.
The longstanding secessional demands of the Baluch aside, the Pakistani government has not helped matters. To put it less mildly, they have deliberately exacerbated matters. Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan covering a land mass nearly half the size of the country. What’s more, it is the richest province in terms of natural resources like gas, copper, and even uranium, to name a few. Although it is the largest province, it is sparsely populated and also the least developed. The Baluch, who make up but a fraction of the country’s population, have suffered deliberate economic deprivation and nearly half the population of the province faces severe educational poverty as Baluchistan stands well behind the rest of the country in literacy. For decades, Pakistan has extracted natural gas from the province but the Baluch themselves have been largely denied access to it and have been awarded little in the way of royalties that are due to them. 80% of the province has had no electricity, which poses a challenge for producing safe drinking water. Little wonder then that the infant mortality rate is the highest in Baluchistan.
As a result of this economic discrimination, the Baluch insurgency has been gathering strength ever since their occupation in 1948, and by now there have been a number of encounters with Pakistan’s predominantly Punjabi army. Although the military has succeeded each time, they have not stopped there. Thousands of Baluch activists have been abducted by the state in what’s plainly known as the “kill and dump” policy. Anybody who speaks against the state and demands justice, especially students, is a potential target. Mutilated corpses are found along desert roads, the bodies carrying painfully clear signs of torture. In many cases, however, the abducted altogether disappear, as if they never existed. And that is the worst, as victims’ families remain stuck in limbo, not knowing whether their sons are dead or locked up in detention.
“Frontier Corps’ (FC) uniformed men come, pick up our sons,” told Mama Qadeer Baloch, a prominent rights activist, to The Diplomat. “And the ISI and MI also come in civilian clothing, raid our homes, pick up our boys from colleges, schools, and neighbourhood. Whenever they fear our students will fight back, they bring in the FC’s uniformed forces to control the situation. They have treated our educated lot the most horribly. This includes doctors, thinkers, lawyers, professors, and especially journalists.”
Mama Qadeer is no stranger to this truth. His own son, Jaleel Reiki, was picked up in 2010. His body was found three years later. Burns and bullet holes were only the least disturbing signs of torture. Often the bodies of the tortured are mutilated beyond recognition. Mama Qadeer, along with a group of supporters, family members of the disappeared, marched more than two thousand kilometres from Quetta-the capital of Baluchistan-to Islamabad-the capital of Pakistan-to demand justice. But as if military operations-like the one in 2006 in which former military dictator Musharraf technically waged war on Baluchistan and killed a respected tribe leader and former chief minister, the 79-year old Akbar Bugti-and this appalling “kill and dump” policy weren’t enough, the Pakistani government has employed other tactics too. Lately, the state has been granting Afghan migrants from just across the border legal documents in Baluchistan. There is growing concern amongst the Baluch that the state is trying, as Sanaullah Baloch, a former Pakistani government minister, said, to make the Baluch a minority within their own land.
There is, however unfortunately, a flip side to this conflict, not perhaps unlike any other. As a consequence of this constant suppression of the Baluch, insurgent groups have vented their frustration upon those they see as outsiders to their land. Non-Baluch, or those who belong to other ethnic communities within Pakistan, are considered as “settlers” and have been subject to harassment, even though they might have lived in Baluchistan for decades. But the plight of the Hazaras is especially tragic. The Hazaras are not only an ethnic minority-holding Persian roots and speaking a dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan-but, more importantly, they are also a religious minority, belonging to a sect of Shia Islam. While Shia-Sunni clashes are sadly not uncommon in Pakistan, the fate of the Hazaras deserves particular attention. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, since 1999, nearly a thousand Hazaras have been killed in Baluchistan. Thousands more have been injured. One feels the gravity of this situation upon learning that they number less than half a million in the province. There have been a number of reports of Hazaras being stopped on their pilgrimage to holy sites in Iran. Before they cross the Baluchistan border into neighbouring Iran, men and boys are taken off the bus and executed while their mothers and daughters look on helplessly. But the Hazaras are not the only religious minority that has felt the effects of this backlash. Hindus, who have lived in Baluchistan for generations and in peace, have been targeted too. The HRCP reports that over a hundred have been abducted. Those whose families can afford to pay the ransom are released; those who can’t are killed, their bodies dumped. A sadly twisted reflection of the treatment the Baluch themselves have faced at the hands of the state. Subjugating the weak is by no means a new way of seeking and expressing power, especially for the oppressed themselves. But these measures by Baluch insurgents reduce their credibility, taking away from the bigger cause of Baluch rights.
Coming into Quetta airport, well before landing, I get a good view of the topography from my window seat. Bare mountains and desert plains for miles. In places there are mudbrick settlements. If you look up the people of Baluchistan on Google, you get an image of an arid landscape with a tribesman, his face covered by a shawl, sitting upon a hill with his rifle. That image in mind, it makes me think I’ve stumbled into Tatooine, and that there’s a podrace happening somewhere just around the corner. And considering the number of security personnel, especially members of the Frontier Corps, in Quetta city and the proliferation of arms in small stores, the image is not altogether a fiction. The effects of decades of economic deprivation are not buried underneath the mountains that surround the city. An education manager at a low-cost private school tells me how many of the students, even as young as ten, work after school, many of them as labourers. One little child, Abdul Bari, who looks strikingly like Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, eagerly tells me that his favourite subject at school is social studies. The principal reveals to me that he’s one of the brightest kids at school. When I ask him what drives him to study hard and why he wants to pursue further studies, he tells me that his father works as a sweeper and that the people in the neighbourhood mock him for that. Abdul however has different plans; he says he’s going to be somebody.
Students are often at the forefront of change in any society. If it had not been for the students who came together and protested against the apartheid in South Africa, I believe Mandela would have died in prison. I’m reminded of this fact when I see a poster that reads “social revolution” in Urdu on a wall at Baluchistan University. The air here is a bit more solemn than that at the secondary school but the students I meet at BU are driven by that same desire for change. A couple of graduate researchers at the Archaeology department tell me about the Mehrgarh civilization. Students in Pakistan learn about the Indus Valley Civilization that spanned most of Pakistan and parts of India. But the Mehrgarh civilization, located not far from the city of Quetta, despite being one of the most important Neolithic sites and a precursor to the Indus Valley Civilization is hardly ever mentioned. “Baluchistan is an open air museum,” I’ve been told more than once. But in spite of the remarkable findings at Mehrgarh, only a fraction of it and all the rest of history that lies under the feet of the Baluch have been explored. It’s a pity. Pakistan could have easily achieved a sense of historical legitimacy by establishing continuity with antiquity. Instead, it is trying to seek a place in the modern world by wilfully suppressing a piece of its history, a piece that has no interest in the national narrative.
On our way from Quetta to Karachi by road, we travel through several check posts with their unmissable Pakistani flags, guarded by heavily armed paramilitary personnel. My friend and Baluch contact tells me of how, for them, Pakistan begins and ends with these outfits and check posts. Unlike India, Pakistanis have never come together under a single identity. Ethnic differences continue to draw the population apart and not the least because of Punjab’s hold over the economy and the military. This internal conflict is visible nowhere clearer than in Baluchistan. So, as Pakistan celebrates its 68th year this August, and its green and white flag suddenly becomes ubiquitous on the streets of Karachi, I wonder if the Baluch will ever feel at home enough to sing “our Pakistan, long live Pakistan.” Or will the “slow-motion genocide” wipe them off altogether from the pages of the country’s already revisionist history.