If half-a-million ethnic Punjabis flee Balochistan – by Jan Assakzai

If they flee Balochistan

A disturbing fallout of Baloch militants’ estrangement is going to be mass migration from Balochistan of Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking people, who mostly live in Quetta. The professional entrepreneurial middle class composed of the non-indigenous communities in the province has been an asset to Pakhtuns and Balochs for a number of decades.

Balochistan is home to roughly half-a-million ethnic Punjabis, or nearly three percent of its population, and to an even smaller percentage of Urdu-speakers. Nearly half the population of Balochistan is Pakhtun.

Many locals treat Urdu-speaking residents as Punjabis, a fact which makes Urdu-speakers victims of targeted killings as well.

If the wave of targeted killings led to mass migration of the affected communities, the already deprived province could not fill the gap left by them.

There was a time when locals were not prepared to take manual jobs, like those of hairdressers and tailors. The gap was filled by the labour class from Punjab. Being immigrants from other provinces, they have a greater entrepreneurial spirit, which enables them to succeed in various fields. Many of them are prepared to take up two jobs at a time.

The contribution of Punjabis in the education sector in Balochistan is tremendous. They work as teachers, lectures and professors. I received my initial education in Punjabi-run educational institutions and was persuade to join journalism by an ethnic Punjabi journalist, the late Mohammad Ikram, who also trained me professionally. Another ethnic Punjabi journalist who deeply influenced me was Sulaiman Raza, a professor and freelance journalist. A number of other journalists in Balochistan, Pakhtun and Balochs alike, have been trained by Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking journalists.

Recently, over 70 professors in Balochistan University applied to be relieved so that they can work in other provinces, following the brutal killing of Prof Nazima Talib, whom I knew when I was a student in Balochistan University in the early nineties. In seminars, and workshops, she would always inspire her students to do more so that the Baloch and Pakhtun residents of this particularly backward province could come at par with the more developed areas of the country. At the same time, this courageous woman also made efforts to help her students develop a critical thinking. Her killing is not only a tragedy to her family, it is a painful loss for Balochs, Pakhtuns and other communities living in Balochistan who are deprived of a fine teacher.

The targeted killing of the Punjabi-speaking minority has been going on since the second major operation was launched by the army in 2004, following the killing of Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. A bunch of Baloch militants resorted to violence and, among other things, started targeting ordinary Punjabis to avenge the killing of Balochs by the “Punjabi” army during the operation. There had already a surge in Baloch estrangement when the first major operation was launched against the Marri and Bugti tribes back in 1974.

While Balochistan’s Pakhtuns have sympathy for Baloch grievances, they have always condemned the violent methods adopted by the Baloch militants, particularly the targeted killings of Punjabi residents. This is something mainstream Baloch political forces have failed to do.

This is the fundamental difference between Pakhtun and Baloch political forces, that Pakhtuns never used violence as a method to resolve political problems, despite their equally serious grievances. Pakhtuns lost a separate administrative status when the One Unit scheme came into existence in 1955 for the establishment of West Pakistan’s parity with East Pakistan. When one unit was dissolved in 1970, what had been a Chief Commissioner’s Province before 1955 was combined with the former Balochistan States Union, together with the enclave of Gwadar, to form a new larger Balochistan province.

Census data regarding the Pakhtun population have been manipulated by the Baloch-dominated administration. Despite the bias, however, Pakhtuns are around 30 percent of the population. But Pakhtuns have no quota in jobs. Even the convention of a Pakhtun being governor of Balochistan if the chief minister is Baloch has been broken. The Pakhtuns of the province have received no attention from the federal government because, unlike the Baloch, they have never resorted to militancy.

The recent Haqooq-e-Balochistan Package has nothing for Pakhtuns, who are nearly half the population of Balochistan. Their language and culture are being ignored. The all-too-frequent strikes called by Baloch political parties and militants have crippled Pakhtun businesses in Quetta and other parts of province. The list goes on.

Since the initiative is with the militants, the Baloch administration and political parties refrain from opposing the Baloch militants. It is only Pakhtun political forces led by nationalists who have joined forces in opposing the militants’ wanton killing of Punjabis and held demonstrations against them in various parts of Balochistan. This is something which is not widely reported in Pakistan’s mainstream media.

In order to escape the Baloch militants’ violence and intimidation, many Punjabi- and Urdu-speakers have moved to Pakhtun areas, where this has resulted in a rise in property prices. At the same time, some prominent Punjabi- and Urdu-speakers have developed political affiliations with Pakhtun nationalist organisations, such as the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party led by Mehmood Khan Achakzai.

Pakhtuns in Balochistan enjoy excellent relations with Punjabi- and Urdu-speakers, and with the Persian-speaking Hazara community. The Punjabi and Pakhtun communities have become so integrated over the years that there are increasing intermarriages among them. There are fewer cross-community marriages among the Baloch and Pakhtun.

Pakhtuns are becoming more vocal in their demand for a separate province, a development spurred by the renaming of NWFP to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the resulting demand for a Hazara province there, This could lead to deterioration in relations between the two largest communities of Balochistan.

The Baloch political forces want more powers for themselves form the federal government, but they are not prepared to have the Pakhtuns of the province receive the same rights. As a result, Balochistan’s inter-community relations are sharply deteriorating. Ethnic tensions between Pakhtuns and Balochs can only worsen the situation created by the targeted killings of Punjabi- and Urdu-speakers, so many of whom are third- and fourth-generation residents of Balochistan.

The responsibility for the serious situation lies with the army establishment, which ignore indigenous factors and treated the nationalist aspirations of the other ethnic groups in Balochistan as an outcome of foreign patronage. This is the same mindset that the army displayed with regard to Bengali nationalism. The establishment has ignored the fact that the main grievances of these ethnic groups has been and is the Punjabi domination of Pakistan through the army and the bureaucracy.

Only a political solution assisted by empowered political forces is the ultimate answer to the ethnic tensions in Balochistan. Such a solution may be a tall order in the current geo-strategic and political environment, but it is the only way out of the Baloch insurgency.

Until that change takes place, however, moderate Baloch and Pakhtun political forces in Balochistan should call a grand jirga in accordance with Baloch and Pakhtun traditions and build public pressure on the Baloch militants to persuade them to spare the Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking residents of the province.

The moderate Baloch forces need to challenge the militants’ search for an “ideal Balochistan” where ethnic minorities would have no place.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in London. Email: jan assakzai200@gmail.com

Source: The News, May 07, 2010



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