Jul 27, 2009

The new discourse

The onus of generating a process of dialogue and reconciliation lies, as always, with the dominant; or rather, with those on the dominant side who are critical of the injustices perpetrated by their rulers
By Alia Amirali
The recent airing of a TV interview with Hairbyar Marri -- a prominent Baloch nationalist and son of Khair Bux Marri -- may appear to many pro-reconciliation Pakistanis as a step in the right direction. After all, it is rare that Baloch nationalists -- particularly those who talk of an independent state -- appear on Pakistani television; and even more rare that their views are aired virtually uncensored!
This particular interview is not the first of its kind in recent times. In April this year (as well as in June last year), Brahmdagh Bugti -- a leading figure in the Baloch guerilla movement -- was invited to appear live via telephone from an "undisclosed location" on one of the most widely watched current affairs programs in Pakistan.
Three aspects of these interviews were particularly striking: their timing (in relation to current developments in Balochistan), content (i.e. the nature of the questions asked and their replies), and 'openness' (i.e. lack of censorship).
Let us begin at the end, with lack of censorship. To many, the airing of these uncharacteristically 'frank' interviews is a "good will" gesture by the media and government. If this is the case, then why is there a virtual blackout of information and non-state news sources emanating from Balochistan? The initial list of 34 websites banned by the PTA in July 2006 for "spreading misinformation" consisted predominantly of Balochistan-related sites (automatically dubbed "nationalist") that were the only regular source of information coming from the Baloch areas of the province. A dozen more "restricted sites" were added as of 3 July 2009. There are still no private Baloch TV channels or radio stations. One of the few people who attempted to start up one such channel, Mr. Munir Mengal, was promptly swept away into a military torture cell where he was kept for nine months.
Let us now turn to the timing of these interviews in relation to the circumstances, which prevail in Balochistan today. The contradiction is apparent: On the one hand, two of the most fiery young nationalists are invited to appear on Pakistani primetime and freely declare their hostility towards the Pakistani state and its Na-Pak Fauj (in these words). On the other hand, inside Balochistan itself, there is an ongoing series of abductions, torture, and harassment of the very same pro-independence political leadership and activist cadres; a series which began with the cold-blooded murder of veteran politician Ghulam Mohammad and two fellow political activists.
Ghulam Mohammad's murder demands attention, as it sheds light on the state's current policy vis-à-vis the Baloch. What was Ghulam Mohammad's crime? One: Urging his people to resist the occupation of their lands; and two -- what appears to be the immediate impetus behind the murder -- making the Pakistani security establishment look weak by helping secure the release of John Solecki. Solecki's abduction by the Baloch Liberation United Front drew considerable attention to the Baloch movement. Additionally, the fact that Solecki was released and that too looking as pink and healthy as ever, added insult to injury for the security establishment. Three days after Solecki's release, the bodies of Ghulam Mohammad, Lala Munir, and Sher Mohammad were found in the wilderness, mutilated beyond recognition. The message was a simple one: "Expose us and you'll pay." The unspeakable treatment meted out to these three men before their slaughter was perhaps for "added emphasis." It is worth asking then: don't the various incidents of state brutality narrated in the interviews by the two Baloch leaders count as "exposure" of the state? And if the state is being exposed through these interviews, then why are they being aired uncensored on primetime?
This brings us to the third and perhaps most important feature of these interviews: the content. From an analysis of their content and the issues highlighted by the anchors, it becomes clear that these interviews are intended to "expose" the victim rather than the victimiser. Every writer/journalist knows how fundamental one's choice of questions is to the construction of a narrative. It is unfortunate to see that in both interviews, the anchors have chosen to frame their questions in a manner which merely regurgitates the establishment discourse on Balochistan:
n "There is now a democratic government in place; Mr. Zardari even apologised to the Baloch people, but you continue to be angry with us -- why?"
n "Your chief minister, your governor, the majority of your ministers are Baloch. And you say the Baloch are 'oppressed'?"
n "Why don't you take part in the elections? [Come on, give democracy a chance!)"
n "Why did you take part in the elections? [If your real aim was independence?]"
n "Do you really endorse the killing of innocent Punjabis?"
n "So what do you want- other than your freedom?"
n "We know that India is sponsoring you, we have evidence... But tell us anyway: is India sponsoring you?"
n "What about the Pakhtuns; you want them to leave too?"
n "You blame Pakistan for all your miseries, but what have your sardars done for their people?"
n "If this is really a 'Baloch' problem, where are the other 72 tribes?
Not only do the above questions exhibit an utter dearth of knowledge about the Baloch movement and their society, such questions are meant to provoke (rather than engage) the interviewee, to create the atmosphere of a 'duel' -- that too, which is played on the oppressor's turf. Neither of the anchors asked a single question in an attempt to understand -- or help the Pakistani public understand -- why the Baloch talk so ardently of freedom, what they mean when they say they are 'enslaved', or how the wounds became so deep.
The two interviews collectively painted the following picture of the Baloch national movement:
1) The Baloch nationalists are not willing to enter into dialogue with Pakistan under any circumstances. Despite the state's attempts at reconciliation, the Baloch will not stop at anything short of independence, i.e. 'breaking Pakistan'.
2) Even if the Baloch have been 'wronged', the resistance has now turned violent, the militants are ruthlessly killing innocent Punjabis due to their blind hatred for Pakistan, and therefore crushing them may well become necessary "for the protection of Pakistani citizens."
3) The Baloch movement is not a genuine or home-grown movement aimed at the betterment of the Baloch people; it is the result of a conspiracy hatched by foreign powers (mainly India but others too) in order to weaken- even break -- Pakistan.
The Baloch resistance is not in fact 'Baloch' in character or scope; it is essentially a Marri-Bugti phenomenon born out of (a certain section of) the tribal elite's personal tussle with the state.
The only difference between this portrayal of the Baloch movement and the earlier one propagated by the state since the 1970s, is of order rather than substance. Up until the year 2000, the Pakistani discourse on Baloch nationalism centred on the rhetoric of "three anti-development sardars." In light of the post-2000 phase of the Baloch national movement, which has seen an increase in the sophistication, scope, and intensity of Baloch guerilla warfare throughout Balochistan (and not just in the 'Marri-Bugti' areas) as well as massive public outrage at the killing of various Baloch leaders, the state has had to modify its line on the 'Baloch problem'.
The 'modified' discourse now uses 'India-sponsorship' as its peg. The 'anti-development sardars' are still part of the discourse, but they are not the problem any more. Earlier attributed to the Soviets and now attributed to India and its 'proxy' Afghanistan, the 'foreign hand' rhetoric has been promoted to the top slot in the state discourse on Balochistan. Hence, if it can be 'proven' that the Baloch resistance is primarily a foreign-sponsored conspiracy, then the state's atrocities in Balochistan can be washed away -- rather justified, continued, even intensified -- with a single stroke: 'national security'.
It is not a coincidence therefore, that the interviews of these two young Baloch nationalists Hairbyar and Brahmdagh managed to elicit this 'proof' from the horse's mouth itself. After all, what better 'proof' of foreign-sponsorship do you need than the leaders of the Baloch resistance openly appealing for it, declaring that they would welcome Indian (or any other) aid in any form? The fact that these nationalists repeatedly said that they had actually not yet received foreign aid -- and that is in fact why they were appealing for it -- seems to have fallen on deaf years. For the state's purposes, this distinction (between 'actual' and 'potential' aid) is irrelevant because the objective of eliciting these statements is merely to use them as fodder for a "new and improved" propaganda campaign on the Baloch movement.
The onus of generating a process of dialogue and reconciliation lies, as always, with the dominant; or rather, with those on the dominant side who are critical of the injustices perpetrated by their rulers. That is why it is a particular shame to see supposedly "progressive" anchors playing the role of senior interrogator rather than one of senior journalist. If these celebrated media personalities want to genuinely raise awareness on the Baloch issue, they need to go beyond doing sporadic and disingenuous interviews. Instead, they should go into Balochistan proper (and not just to Quetta), investigate the charges that there is a full-fledged military operation in the province, interview nationalists from different schools of thought and talk to people from all walks of life. And they should ensure that these interviews are broadcast on Pakistani prime time. That would be professional journalism and a genuine contribution towards reconciliation.

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