Rose petals welcomed “Mama” Qadeer Baloch and his small band of marchers on a rainy evening at Faizabad Junction. The next day he would wheel a small cart with framed photographs of the dead young men and women of Balochistan to the Islamabad Press Club. Rose petals covered their faces.
The province which was annexed from the erstwhile Kalat state wants freedom from Pakistan, and the army has been repeatedly crushing the so-called miscreants there in large numbers. The young men are insurgents or rebels depending on which side you are on, and the Pakistan government is fairly convinced that India has a role to play in fomenting trouble in this massive province bordering Iran, and has submitted a dossier to this effect to the UN. The excuse for the many detention camps, and torture and the army being sent out to crush rebellion is fear of another secession.
Pakistan is clear that India is doing what it did to support the Mukti Bahini in the war for Bangladesh all over again. The popular belief is that Balochistan and its aspirations are being melded by a RAW conspiracy to unsettle Pakistan. And the arrest in 2016 of Kulbhushan Jadhav, who, the Pakistanis alleged, was an agent of RAW, was shown as proof that its charges were right.
I was repeatedly asked on TV about India’s role in Balochistan—it is a recurring theme in the pantheon of accusations. I tried to tell people that I wasn’t sending agents into Balochistan and that I worked for an independent newspaper which was not the government. But conveniently, my Indian-ness would morph into being a representative of my government when it suited some, while otherwise I would be just another ordinary Indian to be loved or hated. The turmoil in Balochistan is often compared to Kashmir. If I as an Indian wrote about Balochistan and its situation and/or interviewed a person like Mama Qadeer, then why didn’t I write about the freedom or azadi aspirations of Kashmir and its freedom fighters? If I didn’t, I was given to understand that I had no right to write on Balochistan.
But we are getting ahead of the story.
It was Geo TV anchor Hamid Mir who first compared “Mama” Qadeer Baloch to Mahatma Gandhi. In fact, Qadeer’s arduous exercise was inspired by Gandhi’s 390-kilometre Dandi march, only he walked longer than Gandhi—the distance from Quetta to Islamabad is about 3,300 kilometres. The cause was just as searing. It was a long march to the capital to demand justice for the thousands of missing persons in Balochistan. Death threats, generous bribes and attacks did not deter Qadeer who founded the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons in 2009, and his small band of followers. He was seventy-two then (March 2014) and the youngest marcher was eleven-year-old Ali Haider.
The cases that Qadeer filed led to the Supreme Court establishing that it was the security agencies—the ISI, the Frontier Corps and the military intelligence—that picked up the young men and women. There have been so many orders to produce the missing persons but no one does anything. The security forces defy the orders and it is of no use, Qadeer said.
Among the marchers were nine young women and three children, all of whom have a member of their family missing. The walk was the least gruelling experience, as another young participant told me. I spoke to them when they were camping outside the Karachi Press Club in December 2013 after walking 700 kilometres. Sixteen-year-old Sammi’s father was picked up from a hospital four years ago. She could march again if it meant bringing her father back, she said. Her family was in penury. But the real dread is that many of the missing persons could be dead.
People are picked up by security agencies and many of them don’t come back for ten years; sometimes they never do; and their bodies are dumped here and there with slips of paper in their pockets. Most of the children who took part in the protest, like Samina, a seventh-class student, and her younger brother, Ali Haider, had left school to take part in the protest. Their father, Mohammed Ramzan, was missing.
During the march, people would abuse and threaten them, and in some instances some people even fired at them from moving vehicles. A truck hit two of the supporters, injuring them. Qadeer said he had requested a meeting with the UN working group when it visited Balochistan in 2012. “We were invited to meet them in Islamabad and we decided to walk the over 3,000 kilometres from Quetta in a bid to highlight our situation and seek UN intervention,” he said.
The group set out on 27 October 2013, and would cover forty kilometres a day; finally, it took them 100 days to get to the capital. Mohammed Ali Talpur, a senior activist, who was part of the march from Karachi, said that this was a message of defiance to the government and by bringing the march to the heart of the establishment, the people of Balochistan wanted to publicise their plight.
Garlanded with roses and wearing a traditional cap, Qadeer, a former bank employee, was friendly and told me he wanted to visit India, a wish that was granted just when I was leaving. He has documented over 19,200 cases of missing persons and recovered 2006 bodies. The issue of missing persons began in 1947 when Balochistan was forced to join Pakistan after it was freed from the Kalat state, he said.
His thirty-year-old son Jalil Reki was picked up because he was the Baloch Republican Party’s (BRP) central information secretary. His body was dumped in a village bordering Iran. His son’s death fired his zeal to set things right and he founded this organization dedicated to focus on the tragedy of the people in Balochistan, wracked by struggles for independence, counter-insurgency, terrorism and action by security forces.
He said it was the intelligence agencies who killed his son because they called and said so to someone who was with him at that time. His grandson, too, was part of the march. In 2012, his organization filed two cases in the Supreme Court on the missing persons; the petitions asked for these persons to be produced in court. He said the conditions in the detention centres were terrible. People could not even stretch their legs, the rooms were tiny, and the prisoners were blindfolded. And in some of the bodies that the group recovered, there were holes drilled in the legs. He said there were also bodies with the vital organs removed. Sana Sangat, a senior leader of the Baloch Students Organization (Azad) who later joined the BRP, was pumped with twenty-eight bullets.
Among those documented as missing, there were about 170 women. In one instance, a schoolteacher, a mother of a one-year-old son, was picked up. At times, children, too, were taken away.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India from Reporting Pakistan by Meena Menon. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.