By Asha'ar Rehman
14 February, 2014
“LAHORE 75 kilometres” read the milestone in the picture, but over the Facebook the professor wryly remarked “Lahore is farther”.
In the foreground of the image marched a handful of people bringing the case of the missing persons in Balochistan with a walk from Karachi to Islamabad. They were now in the ‘heart’ of Punjab and while they appeared to be an emblem of strength and perseverance, it was all a bit too delicately poised. This Balochistan was too close for comfort for those willing to acknowledge their surroundings.
Punjab has been the recipient of the severest condemnation over the Pakistani state’s handling of Balochistan. Most lenient statements emanating from that ‘remote’ province are the ones which accuse the people of Punjab of abetment by silence. It long ceased to be a plain complaint. It’s a demand. It’s been a demand for many years now.
This was a walking, talking human interest story that, tired of waiting for the investigators to arrive, had taken upon itself to approach the target audience, like a moving well probing if anyone was thirsty in the land of five rivers.
How Punjab reacted to these marchers was crucial. And the people’s response was to be shaped, just as it was to be recorded and disseminated far and wide by the new, vibrant, free media and the level of official ‘tolerance’ of the marchers. Whether the marchers got what they deserved is not a question to be put to them. They are all too used to acting as the deprived, exploited and unnoticed. They may say they had all along known what they were going to get during this excursion of theirs. This is the question the ‘hosts’ should be asking themselves.
The reception of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) marchers varied in both substance and volume from region to region within Punjab. Everyone knew the tougher, to be closely watched phase would be when they came close to Lahore — and beyond Lahore in the journey which the marchers are now to undertake to Islamabad.
Out of the so-called Seraiki stretch and closer to Lahore is where there is, visibly, less diversity of thought and politics and therefore less room for dissent against the established. And if random conversations with those who came in contact with the marchers en route are something to go by, those close to the Multan centre are happier with how they received the Baloch marchers in comparison to those placed near, physically and ideologically, the Lahore centre.
A gentleman who walked with the small VBMP group through Dera Ghazi Khan and adjoining towns says he was pleased to see some of the area’s Sardars, who are of Baloch descent, there to welcome the marchers. A former PPP MNA received the marchers on the border of D.G. Khan as did an MPA of the PML-N. “But they were not there as politicians belonging to one party or another. They were there as Baloch.”
It is obvious from reports that some big political parties chose to keep a low profile over the issue right from the marchers’ arrival in Punjab but the impression one gets is that they were more visible or less absent in the Seraiki parts of the province. The higher the marchers went and the closer they came to Lahore, the more reluctant the ‘major’ parties appeared to be spotted by their side.
The Seraiki areas have their own mix and the political necessities and sensitivities there have made it essential for status quo parties to indulge the nationalists and sundry groups with a reason to challenge the norm. That could be one reason why the southern parts of Punjab more readily accepted the marchers.
In fact one small Multan-based group of Seraiki nationalists was upset over the VBMP marchers’ inability to wholeheartedly and unconditionally take its hand of friendship. The group had organised an event in honour of the marchers, who didn’t attend, as, in the words of one nationalist who appeals for a more sympathetic reading of the situation, “they were following a tight schedule and didn’t want to attach themselves too closely with one particular group or party”.
If an autonomous protest was what was being aimed at, the journey onwards provided the marchers with plenty of space in which to prove their isolation. The circle of supporters and sympathisers around them thinned as they walked ahead.
The workers belonging to the left and progressive groups and parties were there in reasonable strength in the Seraiki areas, but their numbers dropped sharply this side of Multan. The more prominent of these left-wingers waited for the guests in Lahore, and indeed some of them did manage to receive them at the city’s gateway, Thokar Niaz Beg, on Wednesday evening.
The delicate packet had arrived, surviving a scare a few days earlier when the marchers were hit by a truck near Renala, most certainly to the relief of police and district administration there. Along the route in Punjab the local administrations had been particularly careful the marchers were safe and not overburdened and passed through their area of control as quickly as possible.
Some journalists even reported they were advised by friendly officials not to be up-close and too cosy with the marchers. These officials were obviously trying to play the considerate, big-brotherly hosts, trying to protect the Baloch against what they are not used to getting: attention from Punjab.
Asha'ar Rehman is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.