A new country has been born as South Sudan gains its independence, ending decades of conflict. At least 1.5 million people are believed to have been killed in two civil wars there, but in the end it was a referendum that finally brought peace.
It is time now for Pakistan to deal with its own ‘South Sudan’. There have been five uprisings in Balochistan since it was annexed by Pakistan in 1948. The current insurgency has been the most protracted and has seen the conflict spread from the tribal regions of the territory to the settled districts in the south. Whereas the leadership of the Baloch nationalist movement was once dominated by tribal leaders, today a new breed of insurgents is taking centre-stage: educated, middle class cadres, many of them alumni of the Baloch Students Organisation (Azad), such as guerilla commander Dr Allah Nazar Baloch.
For this new breed, the conflict in Balochistan is one of colonial occupation. They see their movement as being one among other historical liberation struggles around the world like those of Ireland, Angola or Palestine. Similar to South Sudan, the insurgents originally were mainly seeking political rights and autonomy within a federal structure, but today the idea of outright secession is arguably the predominant goal within the Baloch nationalist discourse.
Indeed, go to any music store in Karachi’s Lyari neighbourhood and you will be able to buy CDs of singers singing poetry about an independent Balochistan and lionising the guerrila fighters. The owner of one the largest Baloch music production houses (himself a Pashtun) told me last year that if a Baloch album doesn’t have at least one or two “inquilaabi” songs, it doesn’t sell well.
Online videos of protest rallies in Balochistan show thousands of demonstrators chanting “Pakistan murdabad” and “Azaad Balochistan zindabad”. It is common to see buildings in Baloch areas spray-painted with phrases like “Watan ya kafan”. We can bury our heads in the sand for as long as we want, but the writing is, quite literally, on the wall.
For many patriotic Pakistanis, these images are tantamount to sacrilege and they would argue that the state is justified in using any means to silence any talk of self-determination. They claim that these separatist views are held by just an extremist minority faction among the Baloch, who are backed by India and/or Israel and the US. But regardless of whether we like it or not, the reality is that azaadi is today a widespread and mainstream idea among the Baloch that cannot be ignored.
However, there has recently been a rise in sympathy for the Baloch cause in Pakistan. Whenever news breaks of the extra-judicial murder of a Baloch nationalist figure, it sparks momentary calls from mainstream Pakistani leaders and commentators to address the causes of anger in Balochistan. They identify the right issues, but the calls for addressing these issues are prefaced with the phrase ‘if we want to save Balochistan from breaking away’, or ‘if we want to prevent a repeat of East Pakistan’. The underlying assumption in that argument is that addressing the human rights issues of Balochistan is simply a means to prevent its secession.
But surely these human rights issues need to be addressed not merely as a means to an end, but because they are human rights. And in this same light, we must go one step further and be willing to accept that the principle of self-determination is a right for the Baloch people as much as it is a right for the people of South Sudan, Kashmir, Palestine, or it was when Pakistan was created as an independent state.
Of course, it would be idealistic to expect the power holders of the Pakistani state to all of a sudden start putting what is ‘right’ before their own political and material interests. But we can, at the very least, bring a rights-based approach (including the right to self-determination) into the discourse of how to resolve the Balochistan conflict.
This does not mean that everyone should suddenly start calling for the immediate secession of the territory. Rather, the very real demand for self-determination should stop being childishly treated as an unspeakable taboo, and should be evaluated seriously and honestly along with the other demands.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 10th, 2011.