Many superficial Pakistani nationalists will raise their eyebrows at the mere mention of Baloch, Sindhi or Punjabi national or ethnic identity. The reason is that we have been, for far too long, fed on the reading and writing of history that actually ignores histories, peoples and regions that constitute Pakistan today. Nationalism and identities are not either/or issues — meaning that one can be Pakistani as well as a Baloch. Identities have layers and are contextualised.
I don’t think nationalism at the level of the state has to be essentially in conflict with nationalism of people and ethnic groups that make up the state. Let us not miss the point that people and individuals have a right to define themselves the way they wish to, and others must accept their rights. The confusion about layered and contextualised nationalisms in Pakistan arises from religion: since we are all Muslims, we don’t need to think of anything else when it comes to defining who we are. This argument is too simplistic because it ignores the fact that being a Muslim doesn’t eliminate other facets of our identities, like ethnicity, region, caste, tribe and clan.
Let us examine Baloch nationalism in this context. We know Balochistan is diverse in terms of ethnic groups, but this diversity is not confined to Balochistan alone. So are Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Baloch ethnic nationalism is a natural thing, as it is, in the case of the Punjabis and others. Unfortunately, the dominant groups in the power structure have been uncomfortable with accepting multiple nationalisms, considering them conflictive with the idea of Pakistan.
The Baloch have a separate identity — and they have a history, language, culture, social system and above all, a land, Balochistan, of which they are rightly proud of. They cannot be deprived of any of these elements that defines their nationalism: a sense of identity, of belonging to a land and having a history.
As more and more mutilated dead bodies of Baloch youth engaged in armed confrontation with security forces turn up on roadsides in Balochistan, we need to reflect deeply about what has gone wrong. Pointing fingers on the integrity of the Baloch leaders or accusing foreign powers will not work because people know that the purpose is to deflect attention from the real issues confronting the people of the province. A good number of Baloch are angry, disappointed and alienated from the mainstream politics of Pakistan. They feel that the largest province and the dominant Pakistani elite groups have usurped their resources, manipulated their politics and have not accepted their rights on their resources.
The country’s fourth military regime — aided by the same dominant elites — turned its guns on the Baloch when the issues could be best settled through negotiations, bargain and politics of rights. The democratic government has done nothing in reaching out to the Baloch leaders that have taken up arms. In our own self-interest we need to do just that.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2012.