Next day I was in the football stadium packed with spectators. I met Azizullah at the fixed place. The match eventually kicked off after formal pre-match ceremonies. While thousands of people were carrying green and white Pakistani flags, I saw some Indian supporters carrying the tri-color. Surprised, I quipped they must be Baloch separatists. My Baloch friend heard that with a broad smile on his face that I never saw before.
“Yes. They’re Baloch. They’re paid by the Indians to hoist their flag and cheer up the visitors. Something wrong with this? At least they’re not carrying guns and fighting the Pakistani army,” the Baloch student said with a thunderous laughter. I laughed too but took the joke with a pinch of salt.
“People love to gossip that Baloch rights movement is controlled by India. You’ll see Pakistani politicians and military generals making statements about New Delhi’s interference in Balochistan. They’ll claim India has hundreds of training camps here in our province. My simple questions: Where is the proof? Show me at least one camp where Indians are training the Baloch separatists. And even if there are camps, what the hell is the Pakistani establishment doing? How did they let the Indians infiltrate and establish their bases thousands of kilometers deep into Pakistani territory?”
Potent questions raised by Azizullah I thought. While I was thinking about the possible explanations, the restless soul continued his tirade. “They say India doesn’t like the Gwadar port as it will give Islamabad a new naval base. They also insist that this port will make us independent which the Indians won’t like at all. The Chinese have helped construct this port which displeases our ‘arch rival’.
“Typical establishment rhetoric. I can understand that. But what I don’t understand is, how will this port make us prosperous while hardly 10% of the locals are employed by the port authorities?” the 23 year old medical student posed questions in an activist style. “Gwadar is a historic fishing port and Baloch people have been making a livelihood for centuries. This government seizes the town and declares it ‘federal territory’. They establish a cantonment, coast guard outposts and expel the poor fishermen from their waters and impose a 15 nautical mile curfew.
“And this is not the end. They give licenses to fishing trawlers from China and Far East to fish in our seas yet 80% of local population have no right to make a livelihood. Is this justice? You call this development or imperialism Mr. Journalist?”
It was hard for me to validate the figures provided by the young Baloch student. However, I got the gist of his arguments. History is rife with examples when indigenous people found themselves strangers in their own lands and were overran by invading settlers. The Native Americans vs European settlers; Incas vs Spanish; Aborigines vs White settlers; Uighurs/Tibetans vs Han Chinese; and Palestinians vs Israelis are just a few examples of colonialism and subsequent conflicts.
Balochs have long complained of being marginalized in their own lands. They blame Punjabis, the dominant ethnic group in Pakistan for their socio-economic exploitation that is going on for the last 60 years, whereas the Shia Iranians for their politico-religious suppression since the 1979 Khomeini revolution. Despite blessed with huge deposits of uranium, copper, gold, coal, natural gas, oil, sulfur and many other minerals, my three day stay in the province reminded me of some backward place of the world where clocks have lost their pace and time has become irrelevant.
Political propaganda aside, I saw no connections between Azizullah’s family with the feudal leaders. He was equally bitter about them as well. He blamed the government in Islamabad and its machinery for empowering the tribal chiefs instead of the people’s democracy. He vocally blasted the military operations and blamed them for disillusionment of the Baloch masses.
“They have cluster bombs, long range and anti-cave missiles to drop on our land yet they can’t build roads and reservoirs,” Azizullah continued to vent out his frustration. “Dams will enable our farmers to cultivate lands and increase agricultural output of the country.
“Fishing vessels and improved storage godowns will improve the livelihood of our fishermen and boost our exports. I’m not a separatist as I know battles come with a heavy cost but please tell me what choice is my nation left with? We’re forced to pay a heavy price for mega projects yet they’re not ready to provide us the very basic necessities like water, sanitation, education, gas and electricity, transport, jobs etc. I refuse to stay silent,” my young friend cried but didn’t speak any further.
The match ended in a 1-1 draw. Soon we headed to Quetta’s famous attraction, Lake Hannah, where we went for a boat ride. The mid-summer views were spectacular amidst the clear blue skies. My host’s mood was refreshed by the natural beauty around him and his temper seemed to ease a bit. I was ecstatic when he took me to a mountain top restaurant that is famous for its local dish called ‘Sajji’ – whole lamb stuffed with rice, roasted over burning coal.
While I was about to thank him for his hospitality and good company and say good bye, he asked me a quick question. “Agha (sir in Balochi language) Moign, I’ll ask one last question if you don’t mind,” to which I nodded with smile. “We had a boat trip at the lake, didn’t we. Say if I make you row the boat till the point of exhaustion, how will you react?”
The question puzzled me immediately. “Well,” I paused for a while. “I’ll resist and try to get rid of the captain who turned out to be my captor. If I can’t resist I’ll bore a hole in the ship so that he doesn’t get away with his crime and sink with me. You might think it is revenge but it will come out naturally,” I replied while trying to defend my actions.
“We, the Baloch people are doing the same my kind friend. We want to sail in the boat as equals but if we’re enslaved by the colonialists, we will not let this boat stay afloat.” he said in a firm tone. “We may be less in numbers but we live with our traditions and pride intact. For us, our homeland is more precious than our lives.” young Azizullah asserted.
Five years have passed since I first visited Balochistan. Things have not changed at all since then. The military operation continues and so does the insurgency mounted by Balochistan Liberation Army, a rag-tag militia of several Baloch tribes. Apart from the inauguration of a few mega projects and their topsy-turvy functioning, Balochistan stays more or less the most backward area of Pakistan.
During my visit, certain things dawned upon me. I was no more under the illusion that separatist movement is fueled by Washington, Tel Aviv or New Delhi and not the socio-economic grievances of the Baloch people. The uprising in western Pakistan and south-eastern Iran is a result of decades long systematic discrimination and exploitation by the governments in Tehran and Islamabad.
Yes the tribal chiefs are to blame for the underdevelopment of Balochs. Yes they’re selfish and power hungry beasts but what about the excesses committed by security apparatus in Pakistan and Iran that is alienating the masses? Why do the Balochs remain the poorest in both the countries while living on one of the most richest lands in the world? Establishments in the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran better answer these questions soon otherwise their boats stay at peril of getting sunk by the burden of greed, exploitation and expansion.