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The Roots of Baloch Nationalism

By ignoring the rich diversity of its peoples, Pakistan’s ideology has failed the people of Balochistan for decades

by Khaled Ahmed

The Genesis of Baloch Nationalism: Politics and Ethnicity in Pakistan, 1947-1977 (Routledge 2018) by Salman Rafi Sheikh is clearly the most comprehensive and penetrating study of what the state of Pakistan has done to the Balochistan province. It is also a recurring concern that rears its head every few years, with the history penned in the book seeming to repeat itself in 2012 when Baloch leader Sardar Akhtar Mengal presented “six points” before the Supreme Court on how to rebuild the Baloch’s trust in the state.

The six points were clear and unambiguous: (1) end military operations in Balochistan (2) recover all missing persons (3) eliminate all death squads operating in the province (4) bring to justice those involved in political murders (5) rehabilitate internally displaced (6) allow political parties to function in the province.

Baloch disaffection

Pakistan has traditionally paid little heed to state violence in Balochistan. In 2005, for instance, an incident in the Bugti area triggered unrest that was put down by the Army, resulting in a major migration of the Baloch out of the restive region. In June 2013, demanding the repatriation of 200,000 Bugtis displaced by the Army, Nawabzada Guhram Bugti led a 55-day long protest in Islamabad with 400 tribesmen. “These people are living under the open sky for the last 8 years in Jamshoro, Sanghar, Ghotki, Rohri and Karachi districts of Sindh,” he said.

Author Sheikh lays out the issue succinctly. Citing Mengal’s six points, he notes that the disaffection in Balochistan led many to draw parallels with the “famous” six points of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman—the founding father of modern Bangladesh—that had proven a stepping stone to East Pakistan’s separation from then-West Pakistan. In an interim order issued after Mengal’s presentation, the Supreme Court mildly stated that repeated incidents of “target killings” and “missing” persons had completely eroded the “confidence” of the people of Balochistan in state institutions. It further states that only “during the hearings of the present case, 162 separate applications have been filed in the Supreme Court and that the majority of these applications are on the issue of the recovery of missing persons”—a clear indication not only of the intensity of the national movement in itself but also of the extent of its increasing popularity, for a great number of the missing people mentioned in the said order happened to be educated persons—lawyers, students, doctors—who mostly belonged to the middle class.

The Baloch National Movement

Over the seven decades of Pakistan’s existence as a nation-state, the Baloch national movement has grown steadily in response to the state’s ever-increasing interventions, departing from sole reliance on military operations to allegedly running “death squads” as state proxies. Adding to the situation is the realization that the “ideology” of the state has not bound its people together. The extent to which the state’s intervention in Balochistan has increased over the years can best be illustrated through a harrowing fact: Asadullah Mengal was the first Baloch allegedly kidnapped (first “missing person”) and killed in 1976; today, thousands of Baloch activists are said to have gone missing. There is, as such, a clear trajectory from the past to the present situation in terms of the intensity of the movement and the sense that the 70 years of “co-existence” have been all but peaceful.

Indeed, the Baloch were the first to resist the Pakistani state in 1948 following the forceful merger of the Kalat state into Pakistan and have, since, struggled for their legitimate democratic rights. On the other hand, the state’s response to this upsurge has been that of a typical empire, bent upon forcefully suppressing the revolt in one of its remote areas.

Ethnic diversity and the ideological state

The dilemma of the post-colonial Pakistani state was (and still is) its ethnic diversity and its inability and unwillingness to replicate this diversity in the structures of power. This ethnic diversity has caused an uncertain national identity, which has further caused divisions and discouraged plural definitions of what constitutes a Pakistani. This has allowed the ruling elite to claim Pakistan as a unified nation and thereby use the language of Islam to substitute a federal democratic system with a unified structure, which then paved the way for the ascendance of a nationality conundrum.

The post-colonial state of Pakistan had, therefore, to seriously confront self-assertion of various ethnic groups after its creation. After all, the Pakistanis of a “different identity” of East Pakistan did succeed in achieving a separate state for themselves in 1971, leaving a big crack on the ideological edifice of the state-sponsored idea of the “moral” community. Apart from Bengalis, Pashtun, Sindhi and Baloch were the other major ethnic groups who got disenchanted with the illusions of regional autonomy when they had to confront a centralized and exclusionary power structure and a powerful and interventionist state.

Failure of the state to accept diversity

In other words, the ethno-cultural diversity of Pakistan cannot itself be simply taken as the fundamental reason for ethno-national movements to emerge. The reason for this conflict is to be located in the state of Pakistan’s failure to accommodate this diversity politically, a failure duly compounded by ideological, political and military interventions, which in turn caused the foundation for these movements to flourish and further strive for autonomy, ultimately leading to the movement for independence in Bengal and now in Balochistan.

What Pakistan has done to itself is a denial of diversity, of difference of tribal and linguistic identities that a “normal” must be able to absorb. The ethnic resurgence in Pakistan, whereas it does show the internal hollowness of state-sponsored meta-narratives of a unified “Muslim Ummah”, also shows the deep gap between the ideal and reality of the idea of Pakistan that defines its creation as the culmination of Indian Muslims’ self-consciousness. However, since 1947—and particularly since 1971—the state has failed to explain either the country’s disintegration on ethno-national lines or an ethnic build-up in other provinces, leading to shaping an image of Pakistan as a “failed” nation and a “failed” state.

Birth of ideological state

Pakistan began describing itself as an “ideological” state—not realizing that the concept was opposed to the idea of democracy in the 20th century—after the word had been made respectable by the Soviet Union through its planned economy and rapid growth. But there was a significant difference of application: Soviet ideology accepted sub-national identity but barred “autonomous” assertion; Pakistan simply ignored autonomy and suppressed sub-national and regional identities. Ideology was its religion since “the state is not supposed to be without a purpose.” Pakistan’s ideology, like most other ideologies, was utopian, little realizing that all utopias are coercive. It made Pakistan different from India, which was in fact more “planned” and “socialist” at its beginning but was not called ideological because it did not ordain coercion. Today, India is de-Nehruizing itself. Should Pakistan also de-ideologize itself?

Pakistan had no idea why “ideological” states became oppressive. It simply revered the “nazriya” that emanated from the religion that all Muslims believed in. But ideology means that the state has an idea which it thinks is right, and will punish anyone who does not believe in it. With the passage of time, and despite Section 123-A in the Penal Code punishing anyone opposing the “ideology of Pakistan,” the state has become relaxed about ideology. It is not like Iran; it is not like the Soviet Union of yore either when it was run by the Communist Party.

An ideological dystopia

In an ideological state—if fascist and totalitarian—there are supposed to be no individual liberties. The state is coercive, as in Iran, and people don’t have the right to think freely. In that sense, one can say that Pakistan is an “incomplete” ideological state—consequently more troubled than Iran—a hybrid distasteful to Islamists. It upsets many minds. Liberals complain the state tolerates extremism; the orthodox detest the state’s reluctance to reach its religious fulfilment as a violent utopia. Where did “ideology,” which deprives the Baloch and other communities of Pakistan of their rights, come from?

The word was born in the French Revolution but Karl Marx did not refer to it in any meaningful manner. However, Friedrich Engels discussed it, but surprisingly called it “false consciousness.” He meant that it was false so far as the state tried to create it under duress. (There is no other way ideology can be embraced.) Alan Cassels says in his book Ideology and International Relations in the Modern World (Routledge 1996): “The word ideologie came into use in the French revolutionary era in order to characterize the beliefs of certain anti-metaphysical philosophes who followed Locke and Condillac in contending that all knowledge derives from sensation. The French Revolution was the dark underside of Enlightenment in Europe. Its ‘ideology’ dealt in distortion and illusion, and thus deserved the title of false consciousness.” Engels is quoted in the book: “Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, it is true, but with a false consciousness. The real forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it would simply not be an ideological process.”

Castle of Pakistan

Today, there is a consensus against ideology outside the “castle” of Pakistan: Ideology is a doctrine whose special claim upon the attention of its believer rests less upon its supposedly scientific or philosophical character than upon the fact that it is a revelation. Interestingly, the ideology of the rationalist French Revolution—and later the October Revolution—replaced the dogma of the Church and demanded the “leap of faith” the same way some of us want the “two-nation theory” believed without questioning. Distracted from other implications of ideology we now take it to mean Islamic laws. But once we play on this turf, Al Qaeda becomes more “ideologically” focused.

In his rejection of the Pakistan Constitution, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri questions Pakistan’s “incompleteness.” He wants the Constitution to clearly ban bank interest, lotteries, insurance and stock exchange, etc, while also outlawing women as leaders of the state. His book The Morning and the Lamp was distributed by madrassas that agreed with him. As long as Pakistan is ideological it has no business calling Al Qaeda’s suicide-bombers non-Muslims. In fact, they come across as better Muslims killing lesser Muslims.

Seeds of separatism

Pakistan recognizes itself as “nation” but will not accept the idea of a “separate nationality” within itself. This narrows down the idea of the nation and makes it “rejectionist” of the diversity within. This results in the “separatism” that is now troubling Pakistan. It was once the slogan of the founders of Pakistan.

Journal Jabal (Bulletin of the Balochistan People’s Liberation Front), in February 1977, stated: “The Baloch are now conscious that the Pakistani state, in its present form, is an implacable enemy of the entire Baloch nation and peace with this state-machinery means only torture and death. On the other hand, the Army has reached a stage of complete political and military impasse. Out of frustration it has turned its fury on the helpless masses and its own allies—the Baloch renegades. Many of those are now rotting in Mach or Quetta jails, having betrayed their own people and now betrayed by the Army. These brutalities have convinced the Baloch masses that only through armed struggle, uniting the Baloch tribes and under the leadership of BPLF, can their homeland be liberated. It has also convinced them that a fighting unity is vital with all the nationalities in Pakistan and all democratic and progressive forces. As the Army brutalizes the masses, the masses are further steeled in their resolve for final victory.”

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