Earlier this week, the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) was forced to cancel a panel discussion on Balochistan that would have featured activists and academics including Mama Qadeer, who marched from Quetta to Islamabad as part of his attempts to highlight the issue of the province’s missing persons. The orders to cancel the event were delivered by elements of the state’s intelligence services, although the state’s latest demonstration of its penchant for stifling debate and silencing dissent was not entirely surprising.
After years of blocking websites, intimidating journalists, jailing activists, and manufacturing public opinion in support of its own ideological agenda, it should come as no surprise that the Establishment in Pakistan is still up to its old tricks despite the country’s admittedly uncertain transition to democracy. Furthermore, the fact that the state would react so heavy-handedly to a small discussion taking place in an ‘elite’ university should also be unsurprising when considering the topic that was to be discussed. Time and again, despite the manifest and obvious failure of its approach to dealing with the Baloch question, the state has consistently shown a refusal to learn from its mistakes, doubling down on the use of repression and force at a time when, perhaps more so than ever before, there is an urgent need for open and informed debate on this issue.
The facts of the matter are clear. For the past seventy years, Balochistan has been subjected to a systematic campaign of institutionalized discrimination that has left the province scarred by violence and deprivation. Repeated military operations, continued neglect at the hands of the federal government and its lackeys at the provincial level, and a renewed push to exploit the province’s tremendous mineral wealth have all contributed to fuelling the marginaliztion experienced by the people of Balochistan while also giving rise to the very same ethno-national sentiment that the state ostensibly seeks to address.
One of the more notable aspects of the Balochistan issue is the fact that very little is actually said about it. Outside of some small sections of the press, the occasional university classroom, and the odd public seminar, there is limited knowledge of what is happening in the province, and even less understanding of the dynamics of the conflict. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, but one that is actively cultivated and encouraged by a state (dominated by the military establishment) that seeks to maintain its monopoly over the narrative that characterizes the issue in the public discourse, as well as its ability to undertake whatever measures it deems fit in the province without fear of backlash or accountability.
The mainstream, state-sponsored account of the ‘troubles’ in Balochistan paints a picture that casts Baloch nationalists as being dangerously subversive terrorists intent on destroying Pakistan at the behest of multiple hostile, foreign actors. This formulation of the problem is defined by outright falsehood, and is also devoid of any historical context. An alternative view is one that recognizes the importance of the Balochistan issue because of the way in which it poses at least two fundamental questions that have broader implications for the future of Pakistan.
Firstly, Baloch ethno-nationalism, like that of the other smaller provinces (and, in an earlier period, Bengal), problematizes the hegemonic national project that has thus far been at the heart of the state’s attempts to garner support for itself and its domestic and international agendas. In its attempts to define the Pakistani nation in purely religious terms (that have become increasingly narrow and parochial over time), the state has actively undermined alternative expressions of identity, suppressing cultural forms and politics that seek to articulate the heterogeneity of Pakistani society. Rather than accommodating difference and championing pluralism, the state has continued to treat diversity as a threat. There are multiple reasons for this, but they essentially boil down to a few main causes; the need to maintain the dominance of a political and military establishment dominated by a small Punjabi elite, and the use of Islam as a means through which to generate domestic legitimacy while simultaneously perpetuating a rivalry with India justified in almost exclusively communal terms. To accept the validity of Baloch ethno-nationalist sentiment is to concede to the idea that Pakistan’s national project, as conceived thus far, has been lacking.
Secondly, the Balochistan issue also throws up questions about citizenship and rights within the broader framework of the Pakistani state. In addition to the economic exploitation of the province, which has consistently seen its indigenous inhabitants being excluded from processes of accumulation that have enriched external sources of capital (from within and outside Pakistan), the systematic repression of the Baloch, through killings, abductions, full-fledged military campaigns, crackdowns on opposition, the dissolution of governments, and the ever-increasing and intrusive presence of the security forces, illustrates how many in the province have clearly not benefitted from the rights and privileges that they should ostensibly be guaranteed as citizens of Pakistan. Questioning the state’s conduct in the province means exposing the ways in which it routinely makes use of arbitrary, despotic power to impose its will at the expense of the citizenry.
In its attempts to prevent these questions from being asked, the state has historically resorted to coercion, with what happened at LUMS earlier this week simply being a contemporary manifestation of a very old strategy. This also explains the state’s self-evident hypocrisy when it comes to these issues; while many express disbelief at the fact that the leaders of ‘banned’ sectarian outfits roam around Pakistan unimpeded while activists like Mama Qadeer are routinely harassed, the difference between the two lies in how the former do little to challenge the state’s narrative while the latter raise critical points about the nature of state power in this country.
Yet, as even a cursory look at Balochistan would show, the state’s strategy in that province continues to fail. Decades of repression and violence have only served to fan the flames of the conflict, and there is little reason to believe that the escalating brutality of the state, as evinced most poignantly by the plight of the families searching for answers about the thousands missing from the province, will settle matters. It is increasingly obvious that there can be no solution to the Baloch question unless there is more open debate and discussion around the root causes of the problem, and the very questions that the state continues to avoid.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS