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Islam and Sectarianism ( 21 Sept 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Under Siege in Quetta


By Ghazi Salahuddin

September 16, 2012

It is not another country but they do things differently in Balochistan or, to be more specific, in Quetta. I spent nearly three days in Quetta this week and, though I have been there a number of times, there was this feeling that you are exploring a new or changing territory.

 However, unlike on some previous occasions, this visit had nothing to do with my interests as a journalist or, in a manner of saying, a social activist. The task was not to monitor the human rights situation or to make an attempt to grasp the current situation after uneasy encounters with local politicians and observers.

 Instead, I was a guest of the Oxford University Press (OUP) to participate in the Children’s Literature Festival, observed on a grand scale on Wednesday and Thursday. A small contingent from Karachi was led by Ameena Saiyid, Managing Director of OUP. We had other participants from Lahore and Islamabad and a very large number of students, teachers and educationists were there from Quetta and some other parts of Balochistan.

 This was surely an unlikely event to be taking place in Quetta in the present conditions. The first festival of this kind was held in Lahore last year and was a great success; hence, the idea of replicating it in Quetta. It was sponsored by Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) and OUP in collaboration with Foundation Open Society Institute and Balochistan Boy Scouts Association, which provided its expansive premises for the multiple events.

 I was excited to be there because the theme of the festival was ‘Unlocking the Power of Reading’ and since I consider myself a self-appointed ‘book ambassador’ I felt inspired to see a well conceived plan to “promote reading, creativity and critical thinking among children.” The education authorities of Balochistan were fully on board.

 It was really a pleasure to meet Secretary Education, Munir Ahmed Badini. He is a prolific writer in Balochi and I was impressed by his passion for books and literature. It was a joy to spend some time with him. He invited himself to the session in which I was expected to talk on promoting a culture of reading with parents and teachers, and played a collaborative role in the presentation of the issue.

 But this was less than peripheral in a festival pulsating with excitement for children as well as teachers. Its scope was astounding and included theatrical and musical performances. For instance, there were nine sessions at a time. Its Balochistan identity was enforced by the leading role played by Zubaida Jalal, a former federal minister who is now an MNA and founder of Female Education Trust. The moving spirit of the event was Baela Raza Jamil of ITA.

 My purpose here is not to review the festival or expound the argument that love for reading is the basis for excellence in education. Besides, it is not possible to summarise the events and name the participants in a column. Khaled Anam, with his guitar, was the star of the show and I was happy to be travelling, from Karachi, with columnist Zubeida Mustafa and literary celebrity Fehmida Riaz.

The point to make, of course, is that here was an illuminating counterpoint to the darkness that is associated with other developments in the province. Still, it did not seem possible to escape from existing realities. There were hints, between the lines, in all activities and conversations about the tragic state of affairs. I was particularly concerned about how the students were coping with it. As would be expected, the girls had a dominant presence. They obviously came from the better schools of the city and the Baloch voice in the festival was rather muffled. I had numerous and sometimes candid conversations with bright young students with an underlying anguish about what the future may hold for them.

As for the present, a curtain appeared to have been drawn around the festival to prevent any intervention from any of those mysterious forces that are believed to be creating disorder. The festival was not announced in public; only the designated schools and their chosen students were invited. There was an attempt to keep the media at a distance, until it was over. The venue was adjacent to the headquarters of the FC and security was meticulous.

 In short, the children’s right to a free spirit had to be celebrated in virtually a security bubble. Considering that it may otherwise not have been possible, I do not want to quarrel with this constraint. I was happy to be there also because it allowed me to absorb the environment by looking at the sights and hearing the sounds of Quetta. We were advised not to leave the hotel but, being a journalist, I insisted on walking the streets, particularly the old familiar Jinnah Road and the surrounding bazaars.

In addition, friend Shah Mohammad Marri was kind to arrange a meeting for some of us with a group of local intellectuals and writers. There were other casual encounters with politicians and officials. The situation that prevails in Balochistan, with its particular manifestations in Quetta itself, is so complex and potentially inscrutable that one has to make an effort to get a sense of it all. My impression is that the loss of hope has deepened.

The last time I was in Quetta in April this year, as a member of Pildat’s Democracy Assessment Group, the purpose was to discuss the group’s report with politicians and the civil society. Our first meeting on April 14 was set with leaders of the Hazara Democratic Party and they arrived to report that they had just learnt about another attack on their community, in which eight persons were killed.

While we were in Quetta this time, ten labourers were killed on Thursday in the Dasht area of Mastung district almost on the outskirts of Quetta. According to reports the killings were staged as an execution, with the workers lined up and then shot. An outfit calling itself United Baloch Liberation Army reportedly claimed responsibility. The labourers were local Pakhtuns. A strike was called on Friday and we saw shops with their shutters down on our way to the airport in the forenoon.

On the same day, a tribal elder and six others were gunned down in Khuzdar district. Incidents of violence and isolated killings are a daily occurrence. It is against this backdrop that you struggle with various dire formulations. All my conversations were off the record. But they find expression in the very recent report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s fact-finding mission: “Hopes, fears and alienation in Balochistan”. To be sure, there is more fear than there is hope.

Ghazi Salahuddin r is a staff member.