“I really don’t understand your (Pakistani) people,” regretted this Indian journalist fellow who was also one of the organizers of the recently held India-Pakistan conference: A roadmap towards peace in New Delhi.
It was a tea break. Both of us walked slowly out of the conference hall of India International Center in New Delhi. She lamented once again, “I really don’t understand your people.” This fellow had very genuine reasons to complain. How would you feel if you were in her shoes?
Imagine you invite some people to speak at a conference and assign them a particular topic three months in advance. They delightedly accept your invitation; travel to the venue and humiliate you on the stage in front of hundreds of guests by objecting to your conference agenda. I mean how could you raise objections on the agenda of a conference that was put before you several months ago and you willingly accepted it before coming to the event?
Thus, this journalist friend was surprised over the double standards of the so-called Pakistani liberals. It was no surprise for me. Our people love to travel, avail international tours and still do not mind embarrassing their hosts. For me, the best lesson to learn from the New Delhi conference was to see the real faces of some of Pakistan’s so-called liberals and champions of human rights.
Some senior journalists from India Kuldip Nayar, Seema Mustafa and many others had sent an invitation letter to me three months ago to speak on Balochistan at an upcoming conference in New Delhi. The purpose of the conference was to compel the governments of India and Pakistan to resume dialogue that was halted in the aftermath of the Mumbai carnage. Even both the countries indifferently disrupted all forms of people-to-people contact. I willingly agreed to speak on Balochistan in a conference which was supposed to address many other issues such as security in South Asia, Kashmir, climate change and trade.
The organizers asked me to recommend a Baloch nationalist leader as well for the conference. I nominated one Baloch leader who initially agreed to attend the conference but refused to come to the conference at the eleventh hour considering the ‘risks’ involved for a Baloch leader’s credibility if he spoke on Balochistan in India. Thus, he did not turn up for the conference but we subsequently managed to have another Baloch Senator, Mir Hasil Khan Bizenjo, for the conference. Hailing from the National Party, Bizenjo, who is the son of outstanding Baloch communist leader Mir Ghose Baksh Bizenjo, had already been to India ten days before our arrival in the New Delhi conference. One of his statements in New Delhi had already sparked widespread criticism by Baloch youth where he had appealed to the international community to dismantle the Baloch nationalist groups that champion the cause of an Independent Balochistan.
After the mentioning of Balochistan in a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani at Egyptian resort Sharm-ul-Sheik, Balochistan had become the focus of much discussion. A lot of people internationally, mainly in the South Asian region, developed an interest to know about the causes of unrest in Balochistan and the Baloch demands. In fact, I had spoken on Balochistan in a seminar held in Singapore during an India-Pakistan Track II activity. Then, we were told by General® Ashok Mehta, the organizer of the event, that it was the first time in the history that Balochistan was being discussed in an India-Pakistan track II meeting as a full agenda.
In Singapore, no one raised any objections over the inclusion of Balochistan as a separate agenda even though some ten people from Pakistan were a part of our delegation. The delegation included Mushahid Hussain Syed, secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Quaid-e-Azam), Moinuddin Haider, former governor Sindh and former federal interior minister, Aziz Ahmed Khan, former Pakistani high commissioner to India, Rustam Shah Mohammad, former ambassador, Dr. Aysha Siddiqa, senior defense analyst, Kamal Siddiqui, editor of Express Tribune, Rahimullah Yousafzai, executive editor of The News and Mariana Babar, diplomatic Editor of The News. Some parts of the conference were attended by Ms. Fauzia M. Sana, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Singapore.
The Pakistani delegation in Singapore very attentively listened to the full session dedicated to Balochistan and patiently handled the Questions and Answer session. There was consensus between the Pakistani and India participants that Balochistan had been treated unfairly since the inception. Mushahid Hussain Syed, who chaired the session, went to the extent of elaborating the causes due to which a committee headed by him failed to resolve the problems of Balochistan. According to him, there is a chauvinist mindset in the country’s establishment that is unwilling to give equal rights to the people of Balochistan or concede their ownership on their natural resources. He said they had almost clinched a solution to the problems of Balochistan to which late Nawab Akbar Bugti had also agreed but the Establishment sabotaged the whole process in Balochistan which led to the disruption of contacts and alienation of the Balochs.
We had made some headway in Singapore and felt the need for addressing Balochistan as a case of negligence, exploitation and a classic example of how federating units turn hostile in a federation if they are denied autonomy and control over their own resources. However, the hawks in the Pakistani establishment were not very happy over whatever was discussed in Singapore on Balochistan.
The anti-Baloch mindset which was discussed above does not only believe in excluding the Balochs from decision making process but it also believes that information from Balochistan must not reach to the rest of the world. Worst still, they are hostile to a Baloch perspective to be put before the regional and international community. Therefore, if issues like Balochistan are to be discussed, the establishment makes sure that non-Balochs speak for the Balochs at such platforms so that they further mislead the public opinion about Balochistan. It is this reason that one often hears many speakers in talk-shows on Pakistani talk-shows mentioning Balochs (the people) as Balochi (the language they speak). Yet, they, ironically, continue to be called as ‘experts on Balochistan.’
Much to their disappointment, we Balochs have started to talk on our behalf for the past few years. People like former Senator Sanaullah Baloch, who elegantly and assertively put the Baloch case before the national and international audience, have come as remarkable disappointment for these anti-Baloch elements. They have always agitated about the Balochs to speak for themselves.
I have become victim of similar personal attacks by the country’s establishment and some so-called journalists who can not digest seeing a Baloch speaking for his people and giving a candid and honest account of the ground realities in Balochistan. For the first time, I came under extraordinary criticism when an article of mine, ‘a homegrown conflict’, appeared on the op-ed page of Times of India on August 11, 2009. Interestingly, the first man to raise objections over my article was Ahmed Quraishi, a ‘Pakistani nationalist’.
People in Pakistan know who is speaking when Qurashi speaks. I realized that the article had directly hit the establishment on its face. Demands were made that the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalist should condemn my article and declare me as an anti-national. I began to receive plenty of anonymous phone calls and threatening emails. It was surely a hard phase in my professional career when people from my own newspaper Daily Times spoke against me. For example, Nauman Tasleem, a staff reporter of Daily Times wrote on a Google mailing group, “You should not get angry with Mr Siraj Akbar for writing a pro-Indian article because he had been to India on SAFMA scholarship for one year in 2005. Mr Siraj Akbar during his scholarship must have observed (informed) many good things about India and came to know ‘countless’ evils of Pakistan.”
While there were many people in the Pakistani media who wrote against me in public, I was lucky enough to get some moral support of some reputed media professionals, mainly those from BBC Urdu Service and The News International.
My participation and presentation in Singapore about Balochistan irked several big guns in the establishment, mainly after the publication of a follow-up article in the Indian newspaper Business Standard by Aditi Phadnis. The article said:
“The interesting thing about the (Singapore) conference was, there were differences between the Indians and Pakistanis on all other issues. But on Balochistan both sides – I repeat both sides – agreed that Balochistan had been treated very badly for several decades…This was most forcefully brought to the forefront by a young journalist, Malik Siraj Akbar who presented a strongly argued paper… “It (the paper) shows what a Pakistani Baloch feels about his own country. Reading it, one can understand and sympathise both the Baloch people and the Pakistani state. The Baloch people, because of the way they’ve been treated; the Pakistani state, because it must be so hard to govern a set of people as alienated from the country as those in Balochistan.
As the date for the New Delhi conference approached, the organizers informed me that I could now apply for my visa at the Indian High Commission (IHC) in Islamabad. The Indian Interior Ministry had reportedly sent a list of people who had been cleared to be granted visas. Too naïve, I handed it over to a courier service. For a week, my passport went missing. It had not been delivered at the IHC. Every time, I checked the status of my passport, it was “pending” which meant that my passport had not been received at the IHC. One fine morning I got a call from a “private number”. As a journalist, I was quick enough to know that the call was either coming from the intelligence agencies or some spokesman of a Baloch armed group who often call the media and claim responsibility for certain violent operations.
The caller identified himself as a member of an infamous intelligence agency and said he had come to know that I was planning to visit India.
“Why are you going to India?” he asked.
“To speak at a conference,” I replied.
“What conference?” he asked.
“A peace conference,” I added.
“Peace?” he laughed.
“Yes peace.” I responded.
“Have you been to India before?” he wanted to know.
“Yes. Twice,” he answered.
Initially I wanted to say to get some funds for the Balochistan movement. Then I thought the polite chap would go hostile. So I decided to reply respectfully.
“Once to study and secondly to attend a conference,” I informed.
“Why have they only invited you?” the concerned official asked as if he was responsible to pay for my air ticket.
“I am not the only one. There are around ten to twelve people from Pakistan,” he clarified.
“Who are they?” the intelligence fellow made me believe that he was using a post-paid connection and he could afford to inquire for hours and hours. Unfortunately, we in Pakistan have unlimited resources to squander for these useless activities.
“ Aitzaz Ahsan, Asma Jhangir, Iqbal Haider…” he said.
“Aitzaz bi (too),”the intelligence official interrupted perhaps to assure me that he also knew the flamboyant Pakistani lawyer who used to recite a longer-than-a-speech poem during his judicial movement that was intended to restore the deposed (and now the reinstated) Chief Justice of Pakistan.
“Yes sir. Aitzaz is also supposed to speak at the conference.”
“So are you the only one from Balochistan?” Mr. Question continued.
“ No sir. Senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo is also coming,” he replied.
“Oh Hasil Bizenjo? We know him,” he laughed and said.
I laughed. He laughed. We laughed.
The official thanked me for providing him the information. The line disconnected.
My phone rang again.
It was only three hours after the previous phone call.
“Hello,” I attended the phone.
This time it was a call from a “sister intelligence organization”.
“We are calling from the intelligence [of course, he mentioned the agency. I am going to give you ample time to speculate] we have heard you are going to India.”
“Yes, that is right,” I replied, “who told you?”
He laughed and said, “your passport is lying before us”
“My passport?” I was about to shriek with surprise.
“Yes your passport,” he interjected.
“But I sent my passport to the Indian High Commission via courier ( I am not mentioning the name of the courier. You could guess it yourselfs. It is the most popular one in Pakistan). How come it landed in your hands?” I said too many things in a single breath.
He laughed and said in a Punjabi accent English, “ O Sirrr Jeee.Everything comes to us. You don’t worry about it.”
For a minute, I went mad at the courier service’s professional dishonesty. How could they take my passport to someone else? Who would take responsibility for tomorrow my passport is put into another Ajmal Kasab’s pocket and I am declared as a terrorist? Thus, I would advise you all not to trust these courier services (at least in Pakistan) when applying for a visa. They will take your passport to different people and the status of your shipment will always state ‘pending’.
Once again I was asked the FAQ (frequently asked questions) about the objective of the conference, the organizers, the speakers, my role etc. I realized that our intelligence agencies were primarily tasked to do every possible thing that can prevent peace between India and Pakistan.
Honestly, I was impressed with the smooth transfer of my passport from one intelligence office to the other. Otherwise, cases at Pakistani courts take years to get settled. Postal mail takes months to get delivered from one district to the other. The only thing working fast in Pakistan at the moment was my passport!
“This is going to be momentous conference,” I told myself after ending my conversation with the second intelligence officer. “Some people are averse to Balochistan being discussed as a full agenda once again, this time in India. They will try to prevent me from going there,” I concluded.
By virtue of Google Alerts, I received the link to a story published in an online Pakistan mail called Daily Mail that said “Raw organizes seminar with aim to target Balochistan”. I smiled and opened the link. The report had been filed what appeared to be a fake name called Christina Palmer. I knew that is how coward men in Pakistan behave i.e use female names to say things that they can not say with their real names. A large section of the report targeted me. It said, “the Daily Mail’s findings indicate, no senior journalist or intellectual from Pakistan has been selected to speak but merely one nationalist journalist from Baluchistan who runs a separatism nationalists Online newspaper from Baluchistan and got his Journalism degrees from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai India and is known for toeing the RAW lines regarding Baluchistan has been invited from the Media side. The Baluchistani journalist, Siraj Malik has graduated from Asian College of Journalism at Chennai India while Chennai is known as the hub of RAW-run think tanks and it is an established fact that the RAW people keep nurturing the foreigners, linked to Indian education or research organizations.”
This was surely a planted story. I must confess that even the writer of this report had never imagined how deep impact this report would have on the entire conference and on some speakers from the Pakistani side. This report was reproduced by around two dozen online newspapers, blogs, mailing groups.
A week had passed since I sent my passport to the Indian High Commission. I kept on asking at the IHC about the status of my passport. They would say it had not been received there yet. I checked the status of the passport on the website. “Pending”, it showed. As the conference got closer, I became more desperate to get my visa issued. Because in the meanwhile I was also supposed to attend a media training on “digital journalism, ethics, covering religious and ethnic minorities and opinion writing” on January 6-8, 2010 in Kathmandu, Nepal. The training was being funded by the United Nations’ Alliance for Civilizations and led by International Center For Journalists (ICFJ) and Search for Common Ground. I wanted to go to Nepal as I have got a few excellent friends. Thus, I made my mind that I would travel to New Delhi a day before the commencement of the conference. It did not happen. I had to miss the Nepal training because of the ‘disappearance’ of my passport.
One day I got a call from the courier service saying that the Indian High Commission had refused to take my passport. I knew what the real story was. A similar excuse had been given to another delegate from Islamabad of the same conference. On the other hand, the IHC officials said they saw no reasons to refuse to collect someone’s passport who is applying for a visa. After all, the Indian Interior Ministry had had already sent the list of participants who should be issued visa to attend the conference.
“ What should we do with your passport now?” Asked the lady at the courier service.
“I want my passport back,” I demanded.
“Ok. You will get it after two days,” she said.
Two days later, when I called at the courier office, I was told that my passport was in Karachi.
Too furious, I asked why my passport had landed in Karachi. It is a very important document, I insisted. In the first place, the courier service took it to some intelligence officers and now it had been taken to Karachi even though Karachi was now a third and utterly irrelevant destination.
“I don’t understand why my passport was taken to Karachi. I want it immediately,” I said, planning that I would go to Islamabad myself to apply for a visa. Day by day, some invisible but omnipresent forces were trying to prevent me from attending the conference. This was all due to the so-called ‘investigative report’ published in Daily Mail which insisted that the conference was ‘targeting Balochistan” or the other newspapers subsequently argued “equating Balochistan with Kashmir” (the latter argument was put in the Nation and Pakistan Observer in a few articles).
“Ok sir,” said the courier officer, “But you will have to wait till Monday morning to get your passport.”
I was annoyed but preferred to wait. I knew ‘they’ were deliberately doing this so that I could not get my passport until the conference ended.
The first thing I did on Monday morning was to call the courier office to inquire about my passport. The lady at the courier office said my passport was still in Karachi and it had not arrived yet. I protested and said I would report the professional dishonesty on their part and how my passport had been taken to the agencies in the media. It seems that the lady also knew more than an outsider about the greed of newspaper owners towards private companies’ advertisements. She replied quickly, “Sir, no newspaper will publish a news story against us. They all get advertisements from us.” I was speechless. Thus, soon I changed my tone and tried to reconcile. She said I should call again in the afternoon about the status of my passport.
When I went there a few hours later, a young man sat in on the seat. I was cursing myself why I had to endure so much only to go to India. Later on, an Indian journalist friend, while commenting on the Daily Mail report, laughed and said I had become a declared Indian agent by now. He further ridiculed me by saying, “ Sala what would you get to become an Indian agent. If one is to become an agent then one should become an American agent.” I agreed with him and said I wished Ahmed Quarashi, a Pakistani nationalist writer who had also joined the media trail of mine by then, could also understand how funny he sounded when he dubbed people as Indian agents. I mean why would one want to become an Indian agent?
After checking the status of my passport on the computer, the official at the courier office once again said that my passport was still in Karachi. I went mad. I literally began to shout at him saying that it was too unethical and unprofessional behavior their part. How could they take my passport to the cops and then take it to Karachi.
“Calm down sir. Let me check again. There is no need to get angry about it,” he said. Having said that, the same guy who checked the status of my passport in a computer fixed in front of him a few minutes ago saying that it was laying in Karachi was now offering me a packet carrying my passport. I was shocked.
“Sorry sir about the inconvenience. It was not in Karachi but put somewhere here in our office. But we had been asked to keep it here,” he clarified. I knew who had asked them to keep the passport there. Without entering into another argument, I took my passport and flew to Islamabad the next day. I thought the trouble was over now. It was not: Thanks to the circulating Daily Mail investigative report. Thus, some well wishers in Islamabad asked me not to walk to the IHC myself as cops might harm me physically if they see me there. I agreed and some friends organizing the conference helped me to get the visa.
Some friends in Islamabad approached me saying that they were surprised over my calmness over the Daily Mail report. Even they also wanted me to clarify why Daily Mail had reported, “Siraj Malik has graduated from Asian College of Journalism at Chennai India while Chennai is known as the hub of RAW-run think tanks and it is an established fact that the RAW people keep nurturing the foreigners, linked to Indian education or research organizations.” I knew the seriousness of the matter.
“I am waiting for the right time to answer all these allegations,” I said.
“But when. This report is everywhere. This is going to tarnish your credibility. They are going to brand you as an Indian agent,” said this friend of mine at dinner.
“C’mon yar. Who takes Ahmed Quarisihi seriously? I will mention the truth about my scholarship to India after I return from there. Right now, my concern is only to go there and speak on Balochistan. If I react on my blog, facebook or on these mailing groups, the fellows at Daily Mail may think that they have scared me,” I said, “try to understand. I am going to be the youngest speaker in the entire conference. There are some people who do not want a Baloch journalist to go and speak for his people. They want to disturb me. I can’t afford to get into any kind of discussion as it will lead to no where.”
He agreed but asked me to promise that I will write a detailed report on my return from India. This write-up is dedicated to this friend of mine in the United Nations.
How did I go to Chennai?
Actually, South Asia Foundation (http://www.southasiafoundation.org), “ In an innovative move designed to promote regional cooperation, has instituted 16 full scholarships for young people from the seven SAARC countries to study at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai (http://www.asianmedia.org).
Scholarships are awarded to a young woman and a young man with a passion for journalism, from each of the seven SAARC countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
According to the SAF website, the SAF Madanjeet Singh scholars from each SAARC country are selected by the SAF Chairperson, assisted by the respective Advisory Board, of that country. The scholarships will cover the tuition, living and travel costs of the selected students for the duration of the ACJ’s ten-month post-graduate diploma course in journalism. The students can choose to study in one of the two media streams offered by the ACJ: the Print Media and Broadcast Media streams.
I would surely not go for such details about my Indian scholarship but I am mentioning everything here for the reason to make things clear in everybody’s minds that I did not go to India as part of the so-called “Indian involvement in Balochistan to support the Balochs”.
I applied for SAF scholarship in 2005 when I was already working as an editorial assistant with the Balochistan Express and contributed to the Herald, Pakistan’s most influential current affairs magazine published by Dawn Group of newspapers from Karachi. The committee that chose me for this scholarship comprised of prominent Pakistani journalists Najam Sethi, Imtiaz Alam and renowned artist Salima Hashmi.
In an email written to me on 16 April 2006, Najam Sethi said: “I personally selected you for two reasons: 1. You were the most promising young journalist in Balochistan. (2) You were from Balochistan which desperately needs good journalists.” The other journalist who traveled with me to India under the same scholarship was Huma Sadaf, a sub-editor with the website of South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA). Of course, we were the first batch of the Pakistanis to go to the excellent Asian College of Journalism (ACJ).
The SAF website even today displays an article and picture of mine receiving my certificate at the Asian College of Journalism convocation on May 3, 2006 (World Press Freedom Day) from Mark Young, CEO of BBC World.
I am sure the world is a sane place to know that RAW would not be stupid enough to train journalists so publicly, as Daily Mail and subsequent reports mentioned about me.
I often wonder what my fault is if I have had the maximum number of bylines out of all Pakistani graduates who got the SAF scholarship. Why should I be blamed if I have been quoted more often in the national and international media or invited to speak more frequently than anyone else from Pakistan who availed the SAF scholarship? Well, I don’t want to sound like Zardari by using the word “crime” but I presume my biggest ‘crime’ is that I have proven the fact that if a scholarship is given to a deserving rural young man, it can turn out to be an agent of remarkable personal and professional revolution. I do not hesitate in admitting that SAF scholarship and the ACJ experience totally reshaped my life and showed me new directions of standing on my feet.
It was my Chennai experience that made me such a staunch supporter of regional peace, integration and cooperation. India and Pakistan can really learn a lot from each other’s expertise and experiences. We can change this region by offering scholarships to our students and younger generation not by exploding atomic bombs. I love India because I made some of my best friends there without realizing that they were Hindus, Christens, Zoroastrians and Jewish.
On January 8th, 2010, I was to fly from Islamabad to Lahore so that I could travel from there to New Delhi the next day. I learned on the same morning that my booking with the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to Islamabad, which was made several days ago, had been ‘cancelled’. Who did it? “They” did it. Yet, I realized that this trip was going to be an extraordinary adventure for me now. A bumpy ride awaited me. I was wiling to face the bumpy ride. I managed to get another ticket at the eleventh hour to fly to Lahore. The flight was delayed for several hours due to dust in Lahore. Finally, I got to Lahore where the organizers of the conference had arranged my accommodation at Sun Fort Hotel in Liberty Hotel.
An official of the Intelligence Bureau caught me at my hotel. He already knew everything about the conference. I must admit the guy knew A to Y (of course not Z) about me. He tried to make the last effort to dissuade me from going to India to speak in the conference. He said I would have to face the “consequences” if I did not give up my plans to go to India. I said it was too late for him to give me the ‘brotherly’ advice not to go to the conference because I was not the only one to go to the conference. I said it was very weird why I was only being harassed while there were around 10 other participants from Punjab. The “brother” from the IB walked away.
Soon after the encounter with the intelligence official, I came back to my room and wrote emails to all my contacts, mainly the organizers of the seminar and fellows delegates from Pakistan who were going to attend the conference with me. As expected, my progressive and liberal friends stood with me in unity and assured me of complete support. I will be trying to avoid using the names of my friends. A senior journalist friend, incensed over the continous harrasement of mine, immediately wrote back to me that she would speak to the Pakistani High Commission the next day about the agencies’ treatment with me.
“We must immediately prepare a statement and send it to the two PMs [Prime Ministers] and Foreign Ministers. I can draft it and we can send it soonest. Also. Copies to the media on both sides. Publicity is usually the best deterrent,” she recommended… The challenges seem enormous and we really admire and appreciate the effort you all are putting into this. Just hope that they do not try to stop Siraj [at the airport the next day].”
In response to my mail, another fellow delegate, a professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and a renowned peace activist, said: ” Someone called me this afternoon identifying himself as Khalid from intelligence. He would not tell which agency, though. He knew that I had applied for Indian visa for this conference and wanted to know if I had recommended someone from Balochistan to the Indian High Commission for visa. This fits in with what Siraj is saying.
Likewise, a prominent Pakistani anti-establishment writer, whose book shook the very foundations of the Pakistani military establishment by exposing its corporate interests, wrote: “This is most unfortunate. This same Khalid guy called my house as well making inquiries from my servant as I wasn’t there. There is a possibility that Siraj may be stopped from boarding the flight tomorrow. The intelligence walas i.e ahmed Qureshi has already started his campaign against the conference. This is sad but not bad as we will also understand the challenges that face the region and those that desire peace.”
I began to feel that I was not alone. I had a lot of brave comrades continuously supporting me. One such friend said: “Friends, it’s a serious matter. We must sit and plan how to take care of our comrades & peace loving people.”
The next day, January 9th, we all thought that I would be stopped at the airport. I was not. But the heat of the conference was still there. Dozens of abusive and threatening emails flooded my mail box. I was being warned not to go and speak at the so-called “RAW sponsored-conference intended to target Balochistan.” I had a professional commitment to which I was determined not to back out despite the heavy risks involved.
The conference began on Sunday 10 January. We learnt that Sherry Rehman, former federal information minister, had decided not to come to the conference mainly due to the negative media campaign unleashed against the conference by the “Pakistani nationalists.” I thought there was a need for all of us to surpass these enemies of regional peace and cooperation. Of course the challenges were too high. Yet, surrendering before these enemies of regional peace could have long-term negative implications on our coming generations. We had to fight them.
Speaking in the first session of the conference, a Punjabi lawyer-cum-senior leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, Aitzaz Ahsan, stunned me when he protested on the stage about the inclusion of Balochistan as an agenda in the conference. He insisted that there were allegations that the India intelligence agency RAW was penetrating in Balochistan and discussing the issue of Balochistan in a conference would further disturb the relations between the two countries. For a moment, I could not believe my eyes that he was the same man who led a long march in Pakistan for the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan. Why was he so averse to discussing Balochistan when the people of Balochistan desperately needed international attention due to a military operation imposed on them for so long?
“We must avoid controversial issues or expanding the canvass to controversial matters,” said Ahsan in the presence of the Pakistani High Commission at the conference, ” Matters on which there can be no agreement. We do not discuss the movements in Mizoram and Asam. We do not want to discuss from Pakistan what the Naxalite are doing in India or what is happening in several other regions like Tamil Nadu etc. I would have avoided Balochistan. You (organizers of the conference) put it (Balochistan) in the program. The issue of autonomy in Balochistan.
The issue of autonomy in Kashmir. They are not the same. You are rolling the significance of Kashmir unnecessarily with the boggy of Balochistan. Already, there are suspicions that in Balochistan there is RAW peneteration. Already there is a lot of debate going on in Pakistan on that issue…let us not discuss Mizoram, Asam and let us not discuss Balochistan. You can’t equate it with Kashmir. Kashmir has a history. Kashmir has a background. The Kashmir dispute has legal UN resolutions. I want it to be resolved between India and Pakistan.”
“I really don’t understand your people,” repeated this journalist-cum-organizer during the tea break. Aitzaz’s speech had turned the table. The organizers were never expecting such objections to be raised at the eleventh hour.
” Why did Aitzaz behave like this?” I asked my first question.
“Simple,” said another fellow Indian journalist standing at my side, “Aitzaz does not want to become another Najam Sethi (a Pakistani newspaper editor who was picked up by the country’s spy masters after delivering a ‘controversial’ speech in India in 1999 and brutally tortured in the custody.
We were supposed to speak on Balochistan and Kashmir the next day. All like-minded people gathered to decide what to do next. The organizers confessed that they had never expected Aitzaz to object on Balochistan. Now, if the continued to include Balochistan as an agenda the next day, this could lead to the failure of the entire conference.
Some suggested that we drop Balochistan as an agenda. The others recommended that I should not speak at all. A third suggestion came that I should soften my tone and speak about everything but the armed struggle and the demand for an independent Balochistan. There was also this suggestion that I should cut my talk as short as for two minutes. I insisted that I had already endured my phase of media trial and harrasement even before coming to India. Therefore, it was meaningless for me to give up my plans to speak on Balochistan. Even if I return to Pakistan without speaking on Balochistan, no one is going to believe that I did not speak on Balochistan.
By then, I learnt that Asma Jhangir, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), who was one of the speakers on the Balochistan session, had also politely refused to speak on Balochistan. I was in a fix and for the first time felt betrayed. I had agreed to speak given the agreement that Asma Jhangir would also speak on Balochistan. Now, only two Balochs – Senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo and I were left to speak on Balochistan. Friends around said it was a deliberate plan on the part of those people to either oppose Balochistan being mentioned in the conference or refuse to speak in order to show the Pakistani establishment their credentials. Secondly, they wanted to resend a message to Islamabad that look it is the ‘traitor Balochs’ who are always in the forefront of ‘defaming’ the Islamic Republic.
The next day, I came to know that the organizers had decided to change the topic of Balochistan and replaced it with Federalism and multi-culturism. The session began early in the morning. In order to further show their commitment to the country’s ruling elite that we had nothing at all to do with Balochistan, the three liberals and champions of human rights – Aitzaz Ahsan, Iqbal Haider and Asma Jhangir – deliberately bunked the session in which we were supposed to speak.
The session on “Federalism and multi-cultrualism’ was chaired by veteran Indian newspaper editor Nehal Singh. I had met Nehal for the first time during the Summer Academy at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) during my second trip to Indian in April-May 2007. The best quote I got during that training program, which was organized by the German organization International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) for the young journalists of South Asia, came from Nehal Singh who said: ” We journalists think we can change the world; we can’t.” I remember when I got to Pakistan from that conference, I wrote a piece for Daily Times which was published with the title: ” Journalists can’t change the world’. I reminded Nehal of that quote and he laughed besides admiring my ability to remember the contents of his lecture.
The first speaker in the session was a professor from New Delhi University who gave a very lucid and academic account of the topic. Secondly, Mir Hasil Khan came on the stage to speak. He was the first and the only speaker who spoke in Urdu during the conference. Much to my disappointment, not to my surprise though, Hasil Khan, a senator from the National Party, spoke on everything but not Balochistan. ”
Hasil is a bluff master. See, how cleaverly he is ignoring the issue of Balochistan and beating about the bush. Tera kia hoga kalia,” I muttered while whispering to myself. This was an eye-opener for me how even a Baloch leader could be intimidated by the security establishment. I felt bad how a Baloch leader was wasting an excellent opportunity to discuss Balochistan. Understandbaly, I was not expecting him to discuss the grave violation of human rights in his home province but he should have at least given a description of his own party. This reminded me of a quote my friend Ahmar Masthi Khan told me that life ends, art does not.
Hasil Khan suggesting that India-Pakistan and China should form a united block to contain America’s growing influence in the region. In his views, the United States was trying to colonize the South Asian region in order to control its natural resources.
When my turn came, I had a lot of options, as many as Hasil Khan did. But I was very clear about what I had to say. I told the audience that people normally face the heat of a conference or of what they say in the aftermath of an event but I had already undergone a medial trial and personal harrasement by the country’s intelligence agencies in my efforts to make it to New Delhi. I clarified that being a journalist, my job was only to present the facts without necessarily subscribing to the views of any specific political group. Therefore, my presentation of the ground situation in Balochistan should not be mistaken as my vote of confidence and support to certain political groups.
I told the conference that I had been invited to speak in the conference on Balochistan. With deliberately taking the name of Aitzaz Ahsan, I said it is ridiculous that we (the media and civil society representatives) often make promises to defeat the security establishment of both in India and Pakistan to make peace between the two countries and bring the people closer to each other. Yet, it is very strange that still allow individiduals like Mr. Ahsan to hijack an entire agenda of the conference because he seems to disagree with the inclusion of Balochistan as a full agenda in the conference.
” If we are unprepared to discourage individuals from hijacking a conference then we shall never be able to defeat the hawks in both the countries to bring peace in the region,” I said, ” I had had been invited to speak in this conference to speak on Balochistan but now I am told that the title of this morning is not Balochistan but Federalism and Multicultrism because Mr. Ashan protested yester over the inclusion of Balochistan. I am a Baloch journalist. I was born and brought up in Balochistan. I write on Balochistan. The Urdu poet Perveen Shahkir said.
Bakht say shikayat hey na aflak say hey
Yahee kai kam hey ki mujy nisbath is khak say hey
Khawab main be thumain bholoon tho rawa rakh wo rawiya
Jo hawa ka khas o khashak say hey
“I write on Balochistan and that is the area of my focus. However, I have been asked to avoiding talking on Balochistan but to speak on Federalism and Multiculturism. However, I would refuse in protest to speak on this topic. I have come to speak on Balochistan. If Mr. Chairman I am allowed to speak on Balochistan keeping in view that when I go back and write my report this session would be mentioned as the “Session on Balochistan” not on “Federalism and Multiculturism”. If I am not allowed to speak on Balochistan, I will sit back in my chair in protest and not speak a word.”
There was complete silence for a few seconds.
“Go on,” said Nehal Singh, the chairman of the session, “you can speak on Balochistan.” A similar response and desire was displayed by the audience indicating that they really wanted to hear about Balochistan. I spoke about the historic context of Balochistan as to why the province had found it so difficult to integrate itself with the state of Pakistan since the very inception. I fully rejected Aitzaz Ahsan’s notion that Balochistan was a different case from Kashmir. I insisted that Balochistan was a stronger case than Kashmir because the states of Kalat (Present day Balochistan) and Nepal were never dealt with directly by the British rulers via New Delhi. They only ruled these two states through proxies and agreements. Therefore, it was wrong in the first place to forcefully incorporate the independent state of Kalat into the fledgling state of Pakistan and it was further wrong to discriminate against the people of the province and exploit their natural resources over the years.
Balochistan, I added, would not have become such a mess if successive rulers in Pakistan had worked sincerely to run the country as a strong federation by decentralizing powers and strengthening the federating units. Betrayal, negligence and exploitation of so many years have given birth to secessionist tendencies in Balochistan from time to time. Instead of responding to these issues politically, the governments have been applying brute force to further fan the anti-Pakistan sentiments among the youth of Balochistan. I insisted that with the passage of time, it was becoming very difficult for moderate political parties such as the National Party and the Balochistan National Party (BNP) to give a justification for their existence as they were no longer substantially contributing in meeting the public expectations.
While, I had thought of focusing on some current perspectives on Balochistan, the denial of Asma Jhangir to speak on Balochistan and then Hasil Khan’s decision to beat about the bush made it very difficult for me to summarize the whole case of Balochistan within eight to ten minutes. The conference exposed the real faces of the Pakistani liberals. These people, when visiting Balochistan, keep telling the Balochs that they are their greatest supporters but they show their real face, which is not very different from the face of the security establishment, when they are speaking at different venues.
Interestingly, one our return from the conference, Iqbal Haider, who had deliberately bunked the session on Balochistan seemingly in order to convince the country’s high commission posted in New Delhi that he had nothing to do with people who talked of federalism and multiculturism (leave alone Balochistan), addressed a press conference in Karachi. When a journalist from a private news channel asked if it was true that his group had opposed the inclusion of Balochistan as an agenda in the New Delhi conference, he admitted having done that. Pakistan’s leading daily, The News, quoted Iqbal Haider as saying, ““Some people from Pakistan proposed to discuss Balochistan issue at the conference but we rejected it because we thought it should not be discussed on Indian soil,” he said. He, however, made it clear that there were not two opinions that military action in Balochistan should come to a halt, adding, maximum provincial autonomy should be given to that province and “missing” people should be recovered.”
Referring to me, Iqbal said only one journalist from Balochistan had insisted that Balochistan should be discussed while the others opposed it. He was lying when he said that the had agreed that the military action in Balochistan should come to halt. When did he say that? Can he clarify? Why is he trying to become a hero now when he shamelessly opposed Balochistan issue there? Let’s say no to double standards.
My readers who were present in that conference will confirm that Iqbal Haider, Asma Jhangir and Aitzaz Ahsan were not inside the conference hall when we were discussing Balochistan. So why on the earth is he fooling that Blaochs saying that he raised the issue of the military operation when he even did not speak a single word on Balochistan? The problem with these Pakistani liberals is that they keep telling lies to the poor masses but they have to say something very different when they are speaking before the country’s top officials.
What satisfied me during the conference was the fact that we Balochs no longer depended on these hypocrites to raise the voice of Balochistan. If they remain with the people of Balochistan, our people will surely admire and welcome them but if they are bent upon gaining double benefits on the name of Balochistan, I am sure the raising educated Balochs will keep chasing and exposing them at all platforms. They should know that Balochistan is a genuine political case not a blank cheque for the liberal elite to notch scores.