Religion as a panacea for Baloch nationalism

By Malik Siraj Akbar

Striking Quetta’s Civil Hospital on April 16, 2010, a young Baloch suicide bomber, Haq Nawaz Baloch, killed at least eleven people, including two top police officials and a television journalist. This attack was dissimilar from ones previously carried out by Baloch nationalist guerrilla fighters against government installations and its security forces. Thus the largely secular Baloch society was introduced to an uncommonly new phenomenon of religious extremism and one for which it is almost totally unprepared to respond.

Unfortunately we cannot regard this suicide bombing as a unique occurrence. Just three days before two teenage sisters were acidified in the Dalbandin town of Chagai District in Balochistan by unidentified persons riding a motorbike. The girls were punished for the “crime” of not observing strict Islamic Hijab. Hailing from an extremely poor family, the girls were rushed to a Quetta hospital. Their faces are burnt but due to the lack of proper medical facilities their medical treatment is unsatisfactory.

An underground militant group calling itself as the Baloch Gharatmand (Honored) Group had, days before launching the first staggering attack, circulated a leaflet warning women in the area that they should leave their homes without being accompanied by a male family member. According to the interpretation of the shadowy group, being unaccompanied by a male family member is “un-Islamic” and should therefore be “punished” by those who ignored the warning.

Initially not many residents of Dalbandin took the threat very seriously as there had been no precedence of throwing acid on women. In Baloch society women usually work independently on their farms, fetch water and visit neighbors without being necessarily accompanied by male members of the family. But on April 29 in Kalat District three sisters, Sakina Bibi, 14, Saima Bibi, 16 and Fatima Bibi, 20, were attacked with acid by masked assailants.

For a province like Balochistan that has fought against Islamabad’s control on at least five occasions news about violence is not surprising. Nonetheless what is striking about these developments is the fact that they are marked by religious objectives and have been carried out by young Balochi males.

This wave of unprecedented attacks on girls indicates an abrupt fundamentalist religious radicalization in the Baloch society. Baloch nationalists, reacting vociferously to the latest shocking developments, know where such plans are masterminded and can pinpoint who is exploited to execute these suicide bombings.

There cannot be two views about who sponsors these radical elements. Baloch nationalists insistently argue that these developments are ultimately the culmination of covert state patronage extended to thousands of registered and unregistered religious seminaries set up to counter the progressive, liberal and secular nationalist forces in the province.

Over the years Islamabad has attempted to impose an unappealing Islamic identity on the Balochs. These religious seminaries propagate an Islamic-cum-Pakistani national identity and view Balochi nationalism as a shallow ideology imported by the “infidels”.

Around 95% of religious schools spread all over Balochistan are owned and administered by leaders of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). These religious schools gave birth to an alternative political force countering nationalistic politics. Soon the JUI emerged as a major power center in the province and today the JUI is an integral part of every coalition government. In the 2002 general elections the JUI took 16 seats in the Balochistan Assembly and currently the JUI has at least 11 seats in the provincial legislature. These representatives serve as a shield to conceal the suspicious activities of the religious schools operating across the province. The JUI platform also demands that the provincial government not take action against the Taliban; thus the province has become their sanctuary.

For example, when the Baloch and Pashtun nationalists in the province welcomed an expected expansion of U.S.-led drone strikes on the hideouts of Taliban in Quetta to hunt down their reclusive leader Mullah Omar and the members of the Quetta Shura, the JUI legislators worked to have the Balochistan Assembly approve an anti-drone resolution on October 13, 2009. As a result, the world was convinced that Balochistan supported the Quetta Shura.

Religious schools in Balochi-dominated areas, owned and administered by JUI leaders, have dramatically mushroomed in recent times. Foreign funding from various Arab sheikdoms has flooded the province. Seemingly unlimited funding has meant that both registered and unregistered religious schools promote Wahhabism. According to independent sources, they indoctrinate their students with hatred against Shias and non-Muslims. They also discourage visits by “outsiders.” They do not want anyone to observe the activities that take place on their campuses.

With the outpouring of foreign money, religious schools have expanded their constituency into the Balochistan’s interior. Charging low or nominal fees, they have also established English language centers and computer labs that attract students from local communities. Interestingly, the schools’ administrators motivate the introduction of computer and English language courses as necessary to promote Islam across the world and to convert non-Muslims. Thus all coursework is taught within the context of promoting Islam. They discourage nationalistic tendencies and emphasis the need for an Islamic identity.

Interestingly the religious schools and their mentors coordinate their work to a greater extent than do the relatively moderate governmental schools and colleges. For example, one would find hundreds of students from different districts of Balochistan or neighboring countries enrolled in a religious school based in a remote district of Balochistan. On the other hand, one would hardly find a single student from distant district in a similarly situated public college. Comfortable facilities, improved accommodations, free meals and a reasonable stipend greatly contribute to the coordination between different madrassas located across the province. This also assists them in building contacts with their counterparts in neighboring Iran and Afghanistan. According to some confirmed reports dozens of Balochi teenagers, if not hundreds, participated in the second Afghan war. Some lost their lives. Trips were facilitated by the frequent guests who came from other provinces to visit the schools under varying pretexts.

The wave of anti-Punjabi operations initiated by Balochi armed groups has claimed the lives of many Punjabi teachers and professionals in Balochistan. But this has not touched the religious schools. Teachers, preachers and students from all over Pakistan continue to flock to these madrassas, establishing a network of like-minded people throughout the country. Scores of inter- and intra-provincial exchange programs regularly take place between their students. While a host of non-local settler teachers have already left Balochistan in the wake of mounting nationalist attacks, this phenomenon has not affected the Tableegi Ijthemas (religious congregations) in Baloch areas.

Baloch towns have recently become major hubs of the Tableegi Jamaat’s gatherings in such districts as Panjgur, Gwadar, Khuzdar, Sibi, Turbat and Quetta. Mammoth congregations come together from time to time and are viewed with concern by Baloch nationalists. The Tableegi Jamaat’s harsh rejection of worldly life and non-violent approach has attracted many Baloch youth. In fact we now see many young men dedicate four months, or even a year, to being Islamic preachers and traveling to different cities throughout Pakistan.

On their return from a stint of preaching, many have reportedly turned hostile to photography, television and other forms of “worldly pleasures.” They consider them “un-Islamic” or elements of distraction. They also discourage women from being educated and seek to restrict their movement.

The April attacks on girls in Chagai and Kalat are concrete examples of this thinking. In the same way, an increase in the religious schools has given birth to more intolerance among youth who now refuse to coexist with the members of a rival religious sect. This religious militancy today overshadows a Balochi nationalistic movement of a secular hue. And now the media have turned their attention to reporting on both the acidification of girls and the increased killing of members of the minority Shia community.

Understandably, the Baloch society remains somewhat in a state of denial over its children’s’ involvement in growing religious violence. Yet the acceptance of different violent cases by organizations dominated by Baloch/Bravi-speaking outfits confirms the fact that militant religious groups are rapidly gaining a stronghold. In return, visibly disunited, fragmented and polarized Baloch nationalists do not seem to have an alternative vision to counter the expansion of militant Islam. For example, hardly any nationalist political party is even organizing study circles for its activists. Studying ideological literature and history has regrettably become anathema to many young Baloch activists. It is the targeted killing of Punjabi teachers, ironically by Baloch nationalists, that is likely to be a setback for a worldly and secular education in Balochistan.

This article originally appeared in the first edition of the re-launched version of View Point

One Response to “Religion as a panacea for Baloch nationalism”

  1. I remember a sentence from a baloch nationalist in an interview with urdu channel. He said “wafaa chaahiyeatoa balochistan ko afghanistaan yaa iraan me milaa saktea hai (If religion is important, Balochistan can be either merged in Afghanistan or Iran)”.

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