Baluchistan, as I saw it !
We had reserved berths in a private cabin in AC-Sleeper section of the Quetta express. It was my first experience of traveling a longer journey by train, I was being very cautious – buying extra prepaid phone cards, keeping things as weird as antiseptic, scissors and anti-depressants with me. By default, the responsibility of technical support for the trip was mine. The DigiCam and my ‘Hi-Fi Telco Device’ for internet, audio/video recordings helped a lot in capturing important data. On the way, I could hardly sleep for the fear of theft of valuable electronics items including two laptops and for the reason that I go to bed in the late hours of night. Also the curiosity to observe the changes in climate, atmosphere, culture, language, architecture, landscape and people forced me to stay awake. Every station where the train stopped for some time allowing me to get-off, I used to jump at the platform, roam around and have something to eat, no matter how unhygienic it looked.
I could hardly notice any change until the train crossed the southern belt of Punjab and we reached Multan. I observed the language changing from Urdu to Punjabi to Saraiki on the way. As we crossed the Saraiki belt of Punjab and entered Sindh, the most striking change was a steep rise in temperature. It was hottest from Shikarpur / Sukkar in Sindh to Jacobabad in Balochistan. The hot air blowing into our cabin from the window could have burned our faces had we faced in the way when we left Lahore. The creativity of one of the group mates was at its zenith when he showed us his skills in DIY air cooling. All the resources required for this experiment were available in cabin, it was just a matter of creativity and perfect execution of the idea. Two scarves drenched in water were adjusted at the windows so as to cool the air blowing into the cabin. This helped, really helped a lot!
The architecture changed considerably as we moved to Sukkar and beyond. The traditional Sindhi touch in the buildings was obvious. Oh, lest I forget, inside the cabin, we had a pamper-less ‘cute kid’ playing dirty tricks. He and his family got in at Multan. He, along with his mother, daadi and a young guy occupied the cabin and we did not dare to stay inside when the stunts were on. We stayed for hours and hours out from the cabin either in the corridors or on the gate waiting for Jacobabad – the station where the kid had to get off. Our ‘chef’ prepared fresh chicken cheese sandwiches for us at the gate of the boogey and we had our breakfast with ‘Al-Marai’ milk at the same place.
Fortunately, we reached the much-awaited Jacobabad and the ‘cute kid’ got off. The antiseptic in my bag came to our rescue when we wanted to clean the cabin after the kid has left us with the remains of his stunts. The heat made us dizzy, weary and tired and it was the first time all of us were quiet inside the cabin, sleepy but not asleep, stand-by mode, to be precise. Staring out of the window, I noticed the landscape and environment changing considerably in just a matter of a few minutes. Brown, all around! Not a single patch of greenery. Parallel railway track, a single road and T&T – and that was it, no other signs of development. Completely desolate! Our train moving on the rail track, a few trucks on the road and petrol pumps aside. Train moving fast through large, wide, open plain area where all we could see was deserted barren land for miles and miles. No house, no shop, no human, nothing!
Bushes or dried trees were seen at some points or a couple of houses at others. I could not see any sign of water for a long period of time. Astonished by this serious change, I asked someone in the train, what place was it and the reply was ‘We are in Balochistan.’ Surprised, astounded and depressed, we remained at the gate of the cabin for another hour staring out, facing piercing hot air, striking rays of sun, hoping to see signs of development in the natural-resource-rich land of Baluchistan.
The landscape remained like that for hundreds of miles until we reached Aab-e-Gum, a small station in Baluchistan. The scenery and feeling there was like that of being at a hill-station. The sun had set and it was quite pleasant there. Signs of greenery, seen after hundreds of dry miles, were very refreshing. A young boy with green eyes, golden brown hair and very fair complexion entered the train selling dates in a beautiful hand-made packet made of dried date-leaves saying ‘pahari khajor le lo‘. Each packet had a dozen dates and all it cost was Rs. 5 ! We could not really pronounce, ‘ABGUM’, the name of the place as written on the sign board of the station thus asked this boy. He replied innocently, “yahan pani nahe hota na is liye isko Aab-e-Gum boltay hain.” When asked how they get water then, he replied, “jab pani bilkul nahe hota to water aata hay“. “wo truck atay hain peso kaa water detay hain“, he said when he was asked where does that ‘water’ come from.
It was 10:00 PM when we reached Quetta where our hosts received us warmly and escorted us to the place where we had to stay for the next 2 days. I can recall what a feeling I had when I had bath – clear water transformed into muddy and dirty liquid after passing through my body – I have never felt myself as clean and clear as I was feeling at that moment. A few hours later later, I was about to starve to death for being hungry for about 15 hours. I asked my fellows to go out and find something to eat. We were informed that most parts of the city close by 8 or 9 PM and it was 11PM then! We found the streets vacant, ruled by complete silence. All we could hear was some noise from the railway station just a few meters away from the street we were passing through.
“Oye, ye dekho!” shouted one of my fellows pointing at a wall on the left. Here we noticed a graffiti saying ‘Bhaag Punjabi Bhaag!’ We were earlier informed of the resentment in the area for the Punjabis but still it was surprising, if not shocking, to see this with my own eyes. To be honest, it did not came as offensive at all! For what I had seen yet in Balochistan or what I had read about Baloch people on the way to Quetta, this was pretty much understandable. We managed to take snapshots of these wall chalking quickly in complete darkness turning the flash off for being scared and moved on to have something to eat.
The shops we were told to visit were all closed, thus we asked a rickshaw wala who took us to a restaurant a few KMs away. We asked him to stay until we are done so as to drop us back. We had afghani pulao and chicken karahi. The pulao having some sweet ingredients like dates, sweetened carrots and kishmish was quite unique and delicious. Later, the rickshaw wala dropped us back and charged us 400 PKR! I have never ever heard any rickshaw wala asking for this much money in my lifetime for a two-way distance not more than 15-20 KM. Later, on arriving home, one of us had to climb up the wall to open the door as the house-keeper didn’t respond to our knocks at the door for almost half an hour!
We had many meetings the next day with people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies – students, teachers, doctors, politicians, social workers, aam-shehri, activists and an intellectual. An ex-member of the BSO-Azad (Baloch Students Organization- Azad) briefed us in detail about the historical facts. It was surprising to learn that Balochistan was independent for many years before the emergence of Pakistan and that they never wanted to be part of Pakistan. He told that Jinnah himself had been the lawyer for the Khan of Kalat, the then ruler of the independent Balochistan, for a case against the British regarding the sovereignty of Balochistan. After the creation of Pakistan, when Jinnah offered them to be a part of Pakistan, both the houses of then parliament of Balochistan (house of lords and house of common) refused to be merged with Pakistan, thus later in 1948 the area was captured by the Pakistan Army and included in Pakistan by force and since then they are being deprived of their rights.
The first pinching comment that we received on our trip came from a group of students from BSO-Azad whom we met at the Balochistan University. “Aap bohat dair se aye hain“, one of them said when we told them that why we were there. This made us bend our heads down in shame. “7 crore logoon me se sirf aap 4 aaye hain wo bhi ab?” he said referring to the insensitive attitude of Punjabis towards Baloch. We had a good chit-chat with them as they explained to us their history, background, culture, their struggle against the Punjabi Army, as they call it, their sacrifices and their solid and clear stand on independent Balochistan. Neither do they acknowledge Pakistan as their country, nor do they accept any of the institutes of Pakistan, whether it be Parliament or the Judiciary. They are ready to die for the independence of Baluchistan – they are not afraid of death. They daringly say, “hum ye nahe kehtay hum pe zulm na karo, hume maro, sab ko mar do, par isko jang kaho, Geneva convention pe amal karo” We were informed that there are thousands of missing people in Balochistan, kidnapped by the agencies. Numbers range from 2000 to 8000! When questioned about the rise of separatist tendencies, one of them told that it gained popularity during Musharraf regime specially after the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti otherwise it was never this popular – Hats off to Musharraf !
We were invited by a group of doctors in the Bolan Medical College who briefed us with the health conditions of the Baloch people specially those in the area of Naseerabad. They explained how the state is responsible for the poor health condition of the Baloch people as a whole and especially of those refugees who migrated from the Dera Bugti area to Quetta. The state did not allow any local, national or international organization to help them, probably for the reason that they refused to take any help from the state itself or from the fear that the news might get to the international media. It was shocking to know that how the state betrayed the people living around the area of Chaghi where the nuclear tests were conducted in 98. The government promised to make necessary follow-up actions to avoid any medical problems for the inhabitants of the area, but it didn’t fulfill the promise after it had used the land for the tests. The people there are suffering from Cancer, hepatitis and various other disabilities. The immigrants discussed above are suffering from various life threatening diseases due to the lack of even clean drinking water. Animals and humans use the same pond of stinking, dirty water to drink! It was heart breaking indeed.
The intellectual we met clearly supported the idea of an independent Balochistan but he cautiously criticized the youth for their romanticism on the existence of the independent Balochistan state on the wealth of its rich natural resources.
After all the meetings, it was starkly clear that a very vast majority of the Baloch people, if not all, desperately wants independence from Pakistan. The widespread wall chalking like ‘Azad Balochistan Zindabad‘ and ‘Pakistan Murdabad‘ in the capital city of the province says it all. The state-sponsored-terrorism has been on for decades to crush the separatist tendencies so as to keep the province stick to the state to exploit the rich natural resources of petrol, gas, coal, copper, aluminium, coal, uranium etc. Isn’t it ironical that in this land which occupies more than 40% of the land of Pakistan, there are only 3 CNG stations – all of them in Quetta! Hundreds of vehicles line up for hours to get gas when the gas is extracted from this very land.
The whole city looked like a cantonment to me where movement of civilians is under observation and control. Check posts were seen at almost every prominent chowk occupied by Punjabi foujis. Interestingly, an ex-MPA took us on a drive around the town to let us know how these foujis treat them – the parliamentarians. It was depressing and very offensive to notice the tone, language, gestures and postures of an aam-fouji talking to the representative of the people. We were redirected three times by those foujis when we tried to go to a lake nearby and the last of them even refused to allow us to go!
After our visit, the feeling I am back with is very tempting to suggest that the separatist tendencies in the Baloch people are very valid and only an independent Balochistan state can guarantee their well being – but I tend to resist having this opinion as yet for the lack of complete information. The information we have, most of that comes from the separatists, though we also met the nationalists who agree that the Baloch people have suffered but yet believe that there can be a way to settle down things while staying with Pakistan. Thus, there is still a need to drill down into more details, meet more people, establish, enrich and regularize communication with those we met and other Baloch people so as to enable ourselves to know them better and to let them know us better. We resisted having any arguments even when we had something to say because of the strong separatist tendencies, anti-Punjab feeling and to avoid the image that we were there to support the state or to prove them that their well-being lies in staying with Pakistan. I used to hold the opinion that the state of Pakistan must stay intact, but seeing and knowing what’s going on in Balochistan I tend to change my opinion. I am still not cent percent sure whether an independent Balochistan can guarantee their well-being or is there still a possibility to give them the living they deserve, in Pakistan. But, I am returned with the changed opinion that, there is no point in having a federation or state where the rights of the people are not safeguarded, where the people are tortured, brutally killed, raped and deprived of basic needs like clean water, schools and health care. If there is any hope for a change, a hope for betterment, it relies on Punjab, the people of Punjab.
Ending Note: The information provided by the people we met, as discussed above, is not verified as yet. We are in process of meeting more people to get a clear understanding and to get diverse perceptions.