re-reading the conflict in balochistan

First piece for JI “special package” on Balochistan. Secretly hijacked by personal agenda.

the pyara hazara

In a world characterized by violence and volatility, this year’s message for International Literacy Day was “Literacy for Peace”. In Pakistan, the policy response to the idea would be lukewarm at best; despite the attention received by the “Education Emergency” earlier in the year, the national agenda is dominated by other, seemingly more immediate issues. There is little realization of the true transformative power of literacy in regions riddled with conflict and uncertainty. However, the story of Karrar Hussain Jaffar – the young Harvard scholar from a minority community in Balochistan – could inspire a new kind of discourse.

Within the bleak context of political turmoil and lack of social development in Balochistan, Karrar’s background as a Shi’ite Hazara placed him at a unique disadvantage. Hailing from a remote valley near Quetta where matriculation is a rarity, he described his hometown as a place where “nobody wants to see the dream of higher education, because they know that it is impossible.” His personal journey from Marree Abad, to the Lahore University of Management Sciences, to the Harvard campus in Massachusetts cannot be measured in terms of distance – it is a leap across cultural, traditional and societal barriers. As he put it, the first step was for him to overcome his reservations about English being a “colonial remnant”, and accepting it as a tool to facilitate progress.  After completing his fully funded MPA and PhD in the USA, he plans to return to Balochistan to raise awareness about the importance – and possibility – of education among his people.

Karrar’s decision is based on first-hand experience of what it is to bridge the chasm between Balochistan and the rest of the world. The province stands in isolation within Pakistan itself; there is a clear disconnect between the population there and the rest of the country, particularly in the urban centres. The gap can be illustrated in terms of education; qualitative standards aside, the literacy rate in Balochistan is more than 20 per cent lower than the national average of 57 per cent. While the Balochistan government has pledged 13% of the provincial budget to the education sector, statistics mean little in the context of a province notorious for the phenomenon of “ghost schools”. Effective disbursement of funds also remains a problem – for instance, it has recently been reported that the largest school in Gwadar has not received a single rupee for maintenance and rehabilitation. This neglect is particularly dangerous given the complex political situation in the province, in which the absence of alternate narratives makes it vulnerable to forces fuelling cyclical violence.

Amid ominous talk of separatism, Balochistan has been described by human rights organizations as “an active volcano that may erupt any time”. The description is drawn from the examination of a history of grievances harbored by the province against the central government; festering wounds that are renewed by an increasing number of missing persons whose absence is attributed to state agencies.  The strong presence of the army and the ISI in the region aims to stamp out separatist forces, only to stoke Baloch nationalism. As a result, the young Baloch nationalist views his (or her) interests to be diametrically opposed to those of Pakistan as a nation and will not concede that secession is not a viable option; that an independent Baloch state cannot be sustained by untapped natural resources and underdeveloped human resources. This mindset makes the youth of the province susceptible to the kind of violent prejudice that has triggered a rise in brutal targeted attacks against non-Baloch teachers and laborers, as well as minority communities like the Shi’ite Hazaras.

UNESCO calls education and armed conflict “the deadly spirals”, each affecting the other in multiple ways. Apart from the retarding effect of war on social development, educational institutions themselves can become nuclei for the concentration of “attitudes, beliefs and grievances that fuel violent conflict”. This is evident from the militarization of student groups in Balochistan, including the Baloch Students’ Organization.  BSO members now make up an alarmingly large proportion of the “missing persons” whose cases are pending in national courts. If this is the situation regarding the more educated segment of society, it is a worrisome indicator not only of endemic conflict, but also future instability. The generation on whom it falls to build and create is instead contributing to fragmentation, and the state response is to further exacerbate the situation.

Karrar stands out as an exception among the youth of Balochistan – indeed, among the youth of Pakistan. As an individual, what he will take back to his hometown is not only a nuanced understanding of the greater world, but a sense of belonging to a nation that provided him with opportunity. Expansion and improvement of the existing educational infrastructure in Balochistan is therefore a crucial means of addressing the longstanding grievances and sense of exclusion of the Balochi people. While only an outstanding few can aspire to Ivy League schooling, the right to basic, quality education cannot be limited to a privileged minority. In addition, strengthening scholarship schemes, exchange programs and links with national institutions would help bridge the gaps in communication and trust, between Balochistan and the rest of the country.

“Literacy for Peace” is not a new concept, but is one that is easily displaced by short-term political tactics. It needs to be recognized that there can be no shortcut for the permanent erasure of long-term resentment and separatist sentiment. Only by opening the channels of communication with the next generation, and providing opportunities to access equal representation, can the young Baloch be integrated as a proud citizen within the federation of Pakistan.

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2 responses to “re-reading the conflict in balochistan

  1. One inspiring story hats off to the boy & hats off to YOU for putting it so wondrously 🙂
    Keep it up, your writing is superbly disciplined mashAllah and sure is an addiction

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