Hoisting flags, foisting identities

The Bharti Janata Party (BJP) seems intent on hoisting the tricolour at Lal Chowk in Srinagar. While patriotism might be the pretext for this tiranga yatra, the underlying narrative is vile nose-thumbing at a people who have been oppressed under distorted interpretations of patriotism and related politics. As such, it wouldnt be surprising if the BJP bigwigs either hoist the tiranga under heavy paramilitary protection and curfew, or are forced to make a run for it amidst a barrage of stone-pelting.

This entire circus of faux-nationalism, meanwhile, finds a parallel in Balochistan, Pakistans restive south-western province, where sighting the chand-tara means that one is either close to a Frontier Corps (FC) check-post or near the entrance of the Balochistan University campus in Quetta. The latter, meanwhile, is guarded by FC personnel in APCs, because students have made a sport of replacing the Pakistani flag with the colours of Azad Balochistan.

Early last year, I had the chance to witness firsthand the brutalities meted out to the people of Balochistan by the same people tasked with protecting the citizens of Pakistan. Perhaps the forces in question dont consider the Baloch citizens of this country, in which case, it is ironic how we insist on holding on to an area and a people whom we otherise as traitors. Over a kilometre on Sariab Road in Quetta, I spotted no less than 10 FC check-posts, where vehicles were arbitrarily stopped and passengers were ordered to disembark. A thorough body search was then conducted, and further treatment depended on the whim of the officer in question. Those stopped were either ordered to recite the national anthem of Pakistan, or told to chant Pakistan Zindabad. If the sloganeering was not deemed patriotic enough, a repeat performance was ordered for as long as the officer wished.

Further atrocities ensue, but if those detained are fortunate, they are allowed to leave with their lives and limbs intact. Outside Quetta, young men (and many women) are kidnapped and end up on the list of disappeared people. While most remain missing, some turn up dead near their hometowns, their bodies mutilated, and the torture to which they were subjected, visible for all to see. In April 2009, similarly mutilated bodies of three Baloch leaders who had allegedly been picked up by intelligence agencies and tortured to death, were found near their hometown. In the months that followed, FC personnel refused to allow people, including close relatives, to offer Fateha at the three mens graves. Stop making saints out of them, visitors were told brusquely. Or do you consider them next to god?

Unlike Kashmir, where the previous summers stone-pelting battles received extensive coverage, albeit in the non-mainstream sections of the media in India, the local media of Balochistan is forced to stay mum over atrocities; those who dare speak out have met with dire consequences. A case in point is that of the Quetta-based daily Asaap, an Urdu-language paper with a clear pro-sarmachar leaning. After months of harassment, Asaaps owner and publisher, Jan Muhammad Dashti, was shot at in broad daylight. He survived, but Asaap did not. Websites that attempt to highlight the issues of Balochistan are routinely blocked by the ever-vigilant Pakistan Telecommunication Authority the same organisation that does not consider child pornography a matter of concern.

Through all this, the states attempt is obviously to attempt to erode the sense of common identity which enables the Baloch to unite against injustice real and perceived meted out to them by the federal government. The popular hyper-nationalist mantra on both sides of the Line of Control, meanwhile, demands that people identify themselves only as Pakistani or Indian, and not Sindhi, Baloch, Pakhtun, Kashmiri, Marathi, Assami, etc. But why must adherence to a federal identity necessarily entail the negation of sub-national identity why must it be an either/or situation? Especially when these attempts at eroding the self have obviously had no bearing on unrest that results from the real grievances of the people, as is the case in Balochistan and even Indian-administered Kashmir.

The BJP might or might not succeed in hoisting the tiranga in Lal Chowk. Either outcome, meanwhile, would provide excellent footage and subsequently, ad revenue, for the television channels concerned. In Pakistan, on the other hand, thanks to state-imposed censures, few are aware of the ground realities and sufferings of the aggrieved people of Balochistan. It is high time we stopped burying our heads under the ground. It is, instead, time to hang our collective heads in shame, and make a real attempt to heed the grievances of the other before it is too late. Silence or neutrality in the face of oppression is tantamount to support for oppression; and the post-1971 excuse of we did not know no longer holds water.