From Bengal to Balochistan with Love

Late Dr. Eqbal Ahmed would relate the most interesting story of the relationship between Rabindranath Tagore, the iconic Bengali poet and intellectual, and the Indian nationalists in the 1920s and 30s. Robi Thakur—as Tagore was known among his admirers, was deeply hostile towards what he saw as a decidedly western model of nation states, and its underlying nationalist ideologies. In fact, he went on to declare that the unspeakable slaughter of World War I, was very much a symptom of a European disease–nationalism. It is then quite an irony that India and then Bangladesh chose Tagore poems as their national anthems.

Indian nationalists, including the Muslims, while aware of his hostility to their agenda, paid due homage to Tagore as a cultural giant. Tagore was against the British rule not because it was by the white man but rather because it was unjust. He flatly declared that the Indian nationalist project was based upon a politics of difference. Eqbal Ahmed quotes him as saying, ‘today you make a distinction between the white man and the brown man. Tomorrow you will make a distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim; the day after you will make a distinction between the North and the South. There is no end to the politics of difference’. He was prophetic, because that is indeed what came to pass. One could add that the day after Pakistan was created, we made a distinction between Muslim and Ahmadi, the day after we drew a line between West Pakistani and Bengali, the day after we drew a wall between Sunni and Shia, and now the Baloch nationalists want to repeat the odious formula one more time.

Robi Thakur wanted to see a decentralized India with the British perhaps as part of its future on an equal footing with its other inhabitants. He wished for an India whose ethnic and linguistic diversity was reflected in the flexibility and multiplicity of its political structures and institutions, with an underlying universal principle of social justice. Robi Thakur failed as did another messenger of equality through diversity, Muhammad Ali Jinnah—but that is another story. Instead victory belonged to the centralized Nehruvian state model, of which India and Pakistan were the first specimens followed by the entire post-colonial world.

Balochistan has legitimate grievances, but its grievances are no more urgent and legitimate than the grievances of poor farmers, workers, rag pickers, women and ethnic and religious minorities in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan or Azad Kashmir. Punjabi landlord, bureaucrat or general is no more kindly disposed towards the Punjabi labour activist, tenant farmer, or dissident artist or writer than the populace of Balochistan. The whole Okara Seed Farm fiasco is a useful piece of more recent anecdotal evidence to keep in mind.

For reasons that can be the topic of multiple dissertations, the Pakistani state relatively early decided to recast its nationalist ideology in the mould of right wing unitary religious identity and culture. That recasting resonated with the middle class migrants from India and then the Punjabi middle class of government servants, businessmen and industrialists, but had no traction with any of the other groups in the country. Ethno-nationalist movements in Pakistan, including Punjabi ethnonationalism, have always been aligned with the political left. It is little wonder then that because of that political chasm, a debate on political ideology and state formation descends into a vapid separatist discourse. The Baloch nationalists are as much to blame for this state of affairs, as is the Pakistani state.

Today Baloch nationalists voice the legitimate concerns of the poor and dispossessed Balochs in the language of separatism–and that too ironically from their high walled mansions in Karachi Defence. There are perhaps more Balochs working in Sindh and Punjab than live in the entire Pakistani province of Balochistan. The economies and societies of Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan are so intertwined that to speak of severing the connections is doing the ultimate disservice to the legitimate underlying message of local autonomy over local resources—yeah right—as if anywhere else in Pakistan has achieved that blessed state.

So in a free Balochistan there will be no appropriation of people’s resources by the elites? There will be no distinction between Baloch and Brahvi? Brahvi and Pashtun? Pashtun and Hazara? Would there be a repeat of the holocaust that was the India Pakistan partition? This is insane! The disenfranchised and oppressed Baloch will find no separate peace from the disenfranchised and oppressed Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtun or Kashmiri. Whatever we are, inner, outer, material, spiritual we are in it together. We have drawn lines and found that there is no separate national nirvana—votaries of Baloch separatism would do well to remember that.

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