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Tearing Down Walls

Saroop Ijaz

By Saroop Ijaz

The power that words, numbers and dates hold over us if repeated enough and at a grand scale is incredible. It changes and sometimes relegates to oblivion the intuitive. 9/11, and we think of the tragedy in New York, maybe rarely the coup d’etat against Salvador Allende. 9/11 has become the name of an event and no longer a date on the calendar. To most of us in Pakistan, the date 9/11 does not mean September 11, but November 9, as we pass it a no less important date in shaping the lens with which we view the world. On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall was rendered ineffective allowing for the first real peek across the ‘Iron Curtain’. Germany has long been unified and the Eastern and Western Blocs melted, perhaps into one, in more ways than one. The ideological convictions and beliefs have been bypassed and modified, except for the occasional exercise in polemic. Yet, in many ways, the pulling down of the Berlin Wall symbolised the new order of things, where isolation was no longer an option, averting the gaze no longer possible. Cities (and indeed countries) could no longer be ghettoised to block out the ‘other’. The euphoria might have evaporated, yet the message still has value.

There is no wall between Quetta to Karachi, only the journey is long and unforgiving, through the wilderness, both physical and moral. It is even longer and more unforgiving if the many hundred kilometers are to be covered walking. Mama Abdul Qadir Baloch along with many Baloch men, women and children make this trip to protest and lament their loved ones who have gone ‘missing’. Yet, there seems to be some sort of an invisible and formidable wall. Who are these people? How have their loved ones gone ‘missing’? (The term suggests that had they been more careful, they would not have lost them.) Have some of them lost more than one family member?

Surely, the march is nothing serious. Had it been, our independent media would have certainly given it as much coverage as was given to the monkey who does a wicked job of riding the monocycle. Maybe squeezed it in for a bit after the eighteenth one-Test match veteran had explained why we lost. These people making the trek might as well be invisible because to us, they are invisible. As were the Baloch protesting in front of Press Clubs and the Supreme Court.

There is a wall between Balochistan and the rest of the country. Balochistan is where people go ‘missing’. Excess gravity maybe, some sort of a Bermuda Triangle? Why does everyone insist on calling them ‘missing’ when they want to say abducted, not a sin of omission but commission and by the state. The State, federal and provincial governments, Army and FC do not get a confidence inspiring start by refusing to meaningfully talk about Balochistan. The veracity of these allegations can and should be investigated on an individual case-to-case basis. However, what is the point of this silly euphemism? The allegation once made is a grave one and merits attention, media and otherwise. If there are legitimate defences and explanations, the state should make them now. Walls allows isolation not only from the ‘other’ but from everyone else too, make presumption of facts and fostering of Blocs (and careerism resulting from them) easier.

A couple of days ago, the centenary of Albert Camus also passed. Albert Camus fought walls and binaries in all his writing. However, particularly his politics and intellectual integrity meant displeasing both sides, particularly in the Algerian movement for independence. Camus was decidedly and committed against the colonial French oppression in Algeria. However, Camus never approved of the violent tactics of the freedom movement rebels, which included attacks on innocent civilians. Whereas Jean-Paul Sartre thought of ‘neutrality’ as being immoral, and violence of the pro-independence activist as justified, Camus believed in more ‘immutable’ principles. In many ways, Camus made and lived with the choice of making an honest, informed opinion on a nationalist movement. His unresolved conclusion was that while France had no legitimate moral grounds to continue the occupation, yet he could never bring himself to the idea of complete independence for Algeria. One can disagree with him, and that is a cost that he has to bear for not separating the moral and the political, for refusing to be labelled and neatly categorised.

There are legitimate nationalist grievances in Balochistan. And that should be the point of departure for any inquiry. The State has handed them a raw deal and continues to do so. The oppression continues still. The state’s model of buying loyalty for royalty is running into diminishing returns. We have neither Sartre nor Camus. Worse, the grievances and flames in Balochistan are not part of our national conversation. There lies the real problem. In the absence of real information, both sides of the wall have their own set of information (some real, some imagined and some fabricated) and arguments that prove their stance. Positions become more entrenched, people become more convinced of them, more certain that the outcome that they have in mind is the only outcome. The ‘other’ side becomes a monolith entity. Say, ‘Baloch’ nationalists in Lahore, and you will be told how the ‘Sardars’ are doing it for vested interests only and all is well otherwise. Never mind, that the coastline where the nationalist fervour is at the highest is not a ‘Sardar’ dominated area. Similarly, the troubles and oppression in Balochistan has to be looked at and acknowledged unblinkingly. However, does that mean that one refuses to condemn or try and change the topic at the killing of innocent settlers or attacks on national monuments by the rebels? One certainly hopes not.

The season of talks is upon us. Why not give talking to the ‘estranged’ Baloch a shot? At least, the idea and its implications debated in full public view, and while there still may be time for everyone. We look for excuses and nuances in assaults which make no provision for them. Yet, insist on dealing with our most complex conflict in binary, half-truths and non-truths.

To phrase it differently, if Mama Abdul Qadir Baloch and all those who walk with blistered feet remain invisible because of our refusal to open our eyes, ‘we’ cede that the entire other side is only the ‘rebels’. That is not only incorrect; it is incredibly dangerous and frightening, and keeping in view the fashion of the month, this might be the real ‘existential’ crisis.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 10th, 2013.

The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore