The missing narrative


Mahvish Ahmad

There is little doubt that the operations and disappearances carried out by the security agencies are fanning the fire in Balochistan

It makes strategic sense to speak about missing persons in Balochistan as a human rights issue. The Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) representatives, who are about to complete their long march from Quetta to Islamabad, know they cannot link the missing persons issue with the ongoing ethno-nationalist uprising. Doing so would put them in far more danger than they are already in.

Civil society activists, many of whom are regular readers of The News on Sunday, are another story. While it is necessary to continue pushing the state to release those who have gone missing, force the security forces to appear before a court, protest draconian laws like the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO) — which basically gives the security agencies legal cover for the extrajudicial kidnappings that they already carry out — there is a need to have a far broader debate about Balochistan.

There is little doubt that the operations and disappearances carried out by the security agencies are fanning the fire in Balochistan. Anyone who has visited any Baloch-dominated part of the province knows that support for the separatist militants is increasing because of the atrocities carried out by the state. But the truth is that the situation in Balochistan goes further back than 2006, the year that Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti was killed under the Musharraf administration, and the year that most outside observers quote when they approximate the time that the current set of issues with Balochistan began.

Many, though not all, of those who have gone missing are active in the Baloch cause. Some are part of the student groups, the most popular of which is the Balochistan Student Organization-Azaad (BSO-Azaad), which was banned a month before the 2013 elections. Others are active in one of the separatist political parties, like the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP) or the Balochistan National Movement (BNM).

How does Pakistan look from the perspective of a Baloch in Khuzdar? If we ask a 21-year old boy who has been tortured and released, does he think that Asma Jahangir is going far enough?

A third group consists of suspected, active, armed militants, who fight under the banner of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Balochistan Republican Army (BRA) or the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF). There are of course many — and it is unclear how big a portion they are — who are innocent, caught in the cross-fire of the current conflict. But to ignore the link between the uprising, or demands for a separatist Balochistan, and those who have gone missing would be incorrect.

When the security agencies decide to carry out disappearances, torture, and killings, they are trying to shut down alternate voices. While part of the job of the civil society activists, or sympathisers of the Baloch missing persons, is surely to ensure their speedy recovery, the other part of the job should be to ensure that the perspectives that they are bringing forward are being heard. We do not need to agree with them — there are many, including myself, who would question demands for a separate and independent Balochistan — but we do need to start making space in the mainstream narrative for their version of Pakistan.

Recently, a high-ranking Baloch politician, who is publicly and personally pro-Pakistan, admitted off-the-record that most Baloch would vote for the separation and independence of their province if there was a referendum tomorrow. Simplistic analyses of the situation in Balochistan will attach this demand to state atrocities, inadvertently arguing that a reduction might reduce separatist demands.

But the demand goes back all the way to 1948, when many Baloch believed that Muhammad Ali Jinnah deployed soldiers to forcibly annex their province, pushing it into Pakistan against their will. In the subsequent 67 years, there have been a total of five uprisings, and each of them has been accompanied by brutal army operations aimed at shutting them down. Most Pakistanis know little, if anything, about the political history of Balochistan. Our job is not only to help recover people, many of whom speak truth against power, knowingly risking their lives, but also to ensure that their voices are not silenced forever if they turn up as corpses tortured beyond recognition.

What does Muhammad Ali Jinnah look like from the perspective of those who live in contemporary Kalat State?

On an even more concrete level, this more expansive engagement with the question of Balochistan means taking seriously the perspective and bodily experiences of the Baloch. How does Pakistan look from the perspective of a Baloch in Khuzdar? If we ask a 21-year old boy who has been tortured and released, does he think that Asma Jahangir is going far enough? What does Muhammad Ali Jinnah look like from the perspective of those who live in contemporary Kalat State? How do Baloch students feel when they prepare for Pakistan Studies exams, or history papers, that they need to take for the board?

How do the Baloch understand Gwadar Port, Mirani Dam, the Makran Coastal Highway, or many other development projects promoted by the state? How does it feel to watch Hamid Mir in a date palm hut in the middle of Awaran? How does earthquake relief feel for the old woman who lost her home?

Some civil society activists will rightly argue that such an analysis and discourse could endanger the lives of those who are already missing. Rather than getting them released, they could argue, this sort of conflation of separatism and missing persons could end up hurting the cause, giving the security forces the sort of ammunition that they need to keep those who have disappeared out of sight. I would argue the opposite.

Those who secretly justify the disappearances, torture, and killings, argue that the security forces have a reason to do what they are doing. They will say that those being picked up are active separatists, and a danger to the security of the Pakistani state. By bringing the narratives propagated by those who have gone missing — including their discourse on Pakistan, development, security, government, etc., — to the fore, we might be able to deflate some of the alarmist notions that exist about them, namely that they are spies for India, backward, intent on killing Punjabis, or much, much more.

[The News on Sunday]

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