And the questions we ignore — that there is an uprising in Balochistan, that the historic marginalisation of this far-flung province is responsible for the devastating consequences of theearthquake, and that the Baloch associate the security forces with daily harassment, disappearances and torture who they think cannot pretend to be neutral aid distributors overnight
By Mahvish Ahmad
After a 7.7-magnitude earthquake hit southern Balochistan last week, flattening entire villages, killing hundreds, and rendering thousands homeless, politics has been treated as a topic best left untouched. Ask the politicians and journalists, governments and state institutions seeing and engaging with Balochistan, and they will tell you that politics obfuscates. For them, bringing the p-word into the equation is both irrelevant and dangerous. Irrelevant, they say, since earthquakes are natural: an inevitable act of God or nature that no one could have avoided. And dangerous, they add, because any talk of politics can hamper urgent humanitarian relief.
For them, the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) attacks on army and government convoys carrying food, medicine, and tents, is a clear-cut example of the dark consequences of politics on emergency help.
Here is the problem: Refusing to talk about politics does not make it go away. We might successfully cleanse our conversations of it, but we cannot excise politics from Balochistan, its devastating earthquake, or the relief that it so urgently needs.
There might be a strong urge to just “get things done”, but anyone with that urge needs to be careful that they do not just stumble around in the dark like well-meaning, clumsy giants trying to “do some good”. They will end up breaking everything they run into, because they were either ignorant of the situation on the ground, or too lazy to bother to understand the politics of the place they are getting involved in.
There is an uprising in Balochistan. Those engaged with the Balochistan question can disagree on the scale of the separatist movement, but few can deny that it is a significant force in the province’s politics. This uprising is rooted in a very real disenchantment with the powers that rule Pakistan. And it has gained traction because of the enormous presence of the security forces. According to an Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) press release, there are currently 1000 soldiers from the Frontier Corps (FC) and Pakistan Army stationed in southern Balochistan alone; 700 before the earthquake hit last week, when the army deployed troops to the region from Karachi and Quetta. Another 1000 troops are stationed in Quetta according to a source within the FC, and many more can be found across the province, including Dera Bugti and Kohlu, the homes of the notorious Bugti and Marri sardars. The massive presence of soldiers across Balochistan indicates that even our state institutions recognise the presence of rebellion and discontent with the governments in Islamabad and Quetta.
If the earthquake had taken place in, for example, Balochistan’s northern Pakhtun belt, the politics that we needed to consider might have looked very different. The fact of the matter, however, is that it did not take place in northern Balochistan, but in the province’s southern belt, known for its remittance-fueled, urbanised towns and BLF-sympathetic middle-class Baloch. The epicenter of the earthquake, Awaran district, is also the birthplace of the current Baloch uprising’s most popular militant leader: BLF commander and doctor-turned-guerilla fighter Dr Allah Nazar.
The historic marginalisation of this far-flung province has fueled the support for the BLF, and is one of the driving factors behind the devastating consequences of the earthquake. While those who are opposed to bringing politics into the conversation will claim that earthquakes are God- or nature-given, others who closely analyse and work with natural disasters know that the poor are always disproportionately affected.
The decision by governments in Islamabad and Quetta to finance major development projects aimed at supporting Pakistan’s aspirations for economic growth at best, and filling the pockets of politicians at worst, has meant that those parts of the province where people go about their daily lives do not have infrastructure ready to withstand the threat of earthquakes. There is a reason that earthquake-prone Japan sees nothing near the devastation that we see in Pakistan — they have decided to invest in buildings that will keep their people safe.
To say that politics is irrelevant in understanding last week’s Balochistan earthquake is disingenuous, if not an outright lie.
Relief is no different. Just like earthquakes, relief takes place in a political context. Independent reports in BBC Urdu, which has provided some of the best coverage of the earthquake over the past week, verify that many Baloch in the disaster-hit areas associate security forces with daily harassment, disappearances, torture, and the notorious kill-and-dump policies where families discover the corpses of their sons bored through with holes. The security forces have also been known for launching operations in this region, many of them ignored by the mainstream press in the rest of the country. For example, in late December last year, the FC launched an operation in Awaran district’s Mashky, the home of Dr Nazar. At least 20 people, including women and children were killed in the operation, and the FC established at least 12 new checkpoints in this far-flung part of the country. To pretend that the army can transform itself into a neutral aid distributor overnight is a farce.
Acknowledging that the army is a political player in Balochistan, even after a devastating earthquake, is not the same as condoning BLF attacks on their relief convoys. One’s position on the Balochistan question is unrelated to the importance of acknowledging the tense political context in which the earthquake has taken place, and in which relief is now being distributed. There are some, like politicians in Quetta and Islamabad, who argue that the BLF is just as much a source of fear in southern Balochistan as the army, if not more, and that the militant group and others allied to them have been part of attacks on Punjabis and innocent government officials. Such a position does not change the facts on the ground: that politics matters, and that anyone truly interested in seeing relief effectively delivered and distributed in Balochistan will have to integrate them into their planning.
A relief that is politically aware, rather than politically ignorant or blind, might ensure that the thousands who are affected by the earthquake will finally receive the aid that they so urgently need. Malik Siraj Akbar, the editor of the banned online magazine, The Baloch Hal, has recommended a ceasefire between the separatists and the army, and the involvement of international humanitarian organisations.
Dr Abdul Malik, the chief minister of the provincial government in Balochistan, and Dr Allah Nazar, have both called for the involvement of international humanitarian organisations. These organisations, from Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), know that the contexts within which they work are tense, and their policy of neutrality comes not from a denial of the political, but from an acknowledgement of politics.
Interestingly, it is some of the most unpopular actors, i.e. the federal government and the security forces, that have been less than enthusiastic about international aid workers. When the earthquake first hit Balochistan, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said that it would not be putting out a call for international help. The army has likewise said that it is concerned about whether it will be able to provide security for aid workers. Some have said that federal and security force tentativeness around aid workers is a September 11, post-Dr Shakil Afridi phenomenon, where they are afraid that foreign governments will use the opportunity to send spies into Balochistan — an indication that even aid can be political.
But separatists and their sympathisers disagree, arguing that the government and the army want to keep humanitarian agencies out because they are afraid that their human rights abuses in the province will be exposed.
It is still unclear whether international humanitarian agencies will be allowed into interior Balochistan. Either way, the politics of the earthquake and the relief that surrounds it reveals a larger truth: In the end, few attempt to paint a full picture of what is going on in Balochistan. Sometimes it is because they are stopped from doing so. Access remains difficult for local and foreign journalists, and those that have tried, have been attacked: for example the offices of the Balochi newspaper, Daily Tawar, ransacked a few months ago.
But other times, it is because we naively assume that the state version of what is going on in Balochistan is more correct than what we hear from the Baloch themselves. And because we fail to understand the larger politics of the events in Balochistan. Missing persons cannot be understood without deeper knowledge of the uprising. Attacks on development projects and Chinese engineers cannot be comprehended without knowledge of the historic socio-economic marginalisation of the province. And, earthquake and relief cannot be understood without a sense of the political dynamics at play in Balochistan. Questioning dominant state narratives, and having an understanding of the politics at play is not equal to taking a pro- or anti-Pakistan position, or a pro- or anti-Baloch insurgency position. It does, however, ensure that we do not grapple around in the dark, and that we become far more aware of what exactly it is that we’re dealing with.
Mahvish Ahmad is a journalist and lecturer living in Islamabad. She is also the co-founder of Tanqeed | a magazine of politics and culture (www.tanqeed.org).