Why Pakistan Is Embarrassed To Talk About Balochistan
I wish to see Balochistan as an extremely secular region where every citizen enjoys equal rights regardless of their ethnicity, color and religion. My vision for Balochistan is totally different from Pakistan’s vision. While Pakistan continues to Islamize its society, I wish to see complete separation of religion from politics. I would like to see Balochistan as the master of its own destiny, a place where our children don’t see security checkposts and armed soldiers every morning when they step outside their homes to go to school.
Why Pakistan Is Embarrassed to Talk About Balochistan
Roshan Ghimire, a contributor to Story South Asia, a website dedicated to all things South Asia, interviewed me about the conflict in Balochistan. Renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recently described the battle in Balochistan as “Pakistan’s other war.” The interview focused on the left-wing secular Baloch nationalist movement that seeks a separate Baloch state, worsening human-rights conditions and increasing challenges for journalists seeking to cover the conflict. Below are excerpts from our interview.
Balochistan has been the epicenter for regional warfare and rivalries. How was Balochistan when you were growing up?
I grew up in Balochistan during 1980s and ’90s. It was a peaceful time for Balochistan as the province recovered from the worst military operation of 1970s, which claimed thousands of Baloch lives. But we lived in poverty, and a lack of basic facilities. There was also an ongoing realization among the people of my generation that the Pakistani federal government exploited our province’s mineral wealth and we received nothing in return. We did not feel properly represented in any domain of life in Pakistan.
You worked for a long time in Pakistan, as the youngest bureau chief of Pakistan’s leading newspaper Daily Times for five years. You lived in Balochistan and filed many stories on pressing issues for several years. Can you tell us about your experience working as a journalist in Pakistan?
Working as a journalist in Balochistan is different from working elsewhere in Pakistan. One feels like the very news organizations that you work for sides with the federal government by default.
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, but it receives the least amount of editorial space in the mainstream national media. Editors censor the stories filed by Balochistan-based correspondents under the pretext of “national security.” For a reporter covering Balochistan, it is often frustrating that your editors and publishers censor so much of your reporting that the government no longer needs officials to perform this job [of censorship].
After all the years working and reporting in Pakistan, what made you flee to the United States?
I did not flee to the United States. I came here in 2010 when the State Department awarded me a 10-month-long Fulbright Hubert Humphrey Fellowship. While I worked here on my fellowship and regularly wrote about the conflict in Balochistan, the Pakistani government officially blocked The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper, which I had founded in 2009. Meanwhile, several Baloch journalists were killed by Pakistani authorities. The ban on my newspaper and the killing of fellow journalists in Balochistan alerted me that my life could also be at risk if I returned to Balochistan.
I had received death threats when I was in Balochistan in 2007, but I never thought that someone would be stupid enough to kill a journalist only because they didn’t like a news story. But now when I turn back and recount the number of 20-plus reporters who have been killed in Balochistan, I realize that killing of journalists has unfortunately become a nightmarish reality of our profession in Balochistan.
I have heard the Pakistani government is ruthless when it comes to censorship in Balochistan. The government banned your website The Baloch Hal in 2010. What exactly is the government trying to hide about Balochistan?
The government — rather, the Pakistani military — has too much to hide about Balochistan. The military wants to control the national narrative on Balochistan. For years the people of Pakistan had been fed a selective state-sponsored narrative about Balochistan, which depicts the Baloch people who want ownership of their natural resources as the “enemies of Pakistan” and “foreign agents.”
Just like the British colonial rulers, the Pakistani military, in collaboration with the national media, tells the general public that they are actually in Balochistan to “civilize,” “modernize” and “develop” the Baloch, whereas we see this as a policy to plunder Balochistan’s mineral wealth and treat the province as a Pakistani colony. Hence, we chose to contest that official narrative and launched The Baloch Hal to tell the Baloch perspective on all critical issues. The government and the media try to tell the world that a small minority of people is seeking “provincial autonomy” in Balochistan, which is untrue, because the ongoing Baloch movement seeks complete separation from Pakistan.
Our reporting and editorials predominantly focus on widespread human-rights abuses in Balochistan, which include forced disappearances, torture and political assassination of political opponents. As journalists we believe it is our responsibility to show our readers the actual picture instead of keeping them in darkness simply because the government wants us to do so.
Violation of human rights is a big issue in Balochistan today. Thousands of men and women are missing from the province. The government blames Baloch militant groups and other extremist for this. Others think government is responsible for the missing people. Who do you think is the real culprit?
Among all human-rights abuses, currently the issue of enforced disappearance is the most alarming. Thousands of political activists who belong to the Baloch ethnic community have gone missing, while hundreds of them have been killed and dumped across Balochistan. Pakistan’s own Supreme Court has admitted time and again that the country’s intelligence agencies and security forces are involved in these extrajudicial arrests. But the judiciary does not have the teeth to bite the human-rights abusers. The people who have “disappeared” are severely tortured during custody, denied their basic right to hire a lawyer or face a legal trial. International human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also blamed the Pakistan authorities for indulging in these extrajudicial operations.
There are two other fronts of violence and rights abuses in Balochistan. The Sunni extremists, led by an underground, banned terrorist group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, have claimed responsibility for the killing of hundreds of Shia Muslims. Most Shias in Balochistan belong to the Hazara ethnic community. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is believed to enjoy covert support from elements within the Pakistani security establishment, and it receives funding from some oil-rich Arab countries.
The Baloch armed groups have also engaged in killing unarmed Punjabi civilians, university professors and journalists as a part of their “revenge strategy” against the government. As a result of these attacks, thousands of Punjabis, locally known as “settlers,” have been forced to flee Balochistan.