The business of violence and human rights

The case of Balochistan — when human life and reason are both collateral damage

Usman Mahar

Usman Mahar

While only states — both authoritarian and democratic— hold the monopoly over ‘legitimate’ violence, the business of human rights works according to the principles of the market. Of course, it is not as simple as that. There are mechanisms and processes — especially in democratic states — that ensure strict regulation and accountability to keep the state’s monopoly over violence under check. There too are human rights organisations that do not treat the business of human rights as a for-profit enterprise — they work towards bringing real and substantial freedoms and rights to the people in need. This article however, is about the imposters in this business — the ones that have little understanding of human rights — for whom the term is just a tool that veils their true convictions, the convictions that are the very antithesis of universal human rights and freedom of expression. These people and organisations end up doing very little or no real work to alleviate the suffering of the people and as such, in effect, help repressive states in carrying out their violation of humans rights.

From my recent experiences at the United Nation Office Geneva (UNOG), I gathered that these people and organisations did not even believe in the most basic of human rights,  that is communicative freedom — what Seyla Benhabib calls ‘dialogical freedom’ based on Hanna Ardent’s concept of the ‘right to have rights’. Such a misunderstanding of human rights is fairly typical of repressive states, but these were human rights organisations operating from European cities like Geneva and Paris, who had so little understanding of the basic ideals behind human rights. Why I come to this conclusion is embodied in my  recent experiences and encounters with some of these individuals and organisations, which I will recount here.

The image of your typical Hollywood production showing a bunch of mafias in a battle with the corrupt New York Police Department (NYPD), as well as each other, should pop up in your head, right about now. All parties; the various mafias, the NYPD, and several other stakeholders resort to any means possible to do what they perceive as being just — sometimes even helping each other in the short run, in order to achieve their long-term goals. Sometimes, there too are individuals — within the NYPD, the mafias, the government, even the justice department —  whose long term goals are purely self-serving, outright opportunistic and myopic. The only loser is the average New Yorker who is caught in the crossfire. I will refrain from elaborating on my analogy further; who is playing what role in this bloody war, that I will shortly allude to, will become clearer by the end of this article and is, of course, partly also up to you to decide, as the reader. It is also a war you have probably never heard of, a war where old feudal lords are in a duel with the new bearers of ‘legitimate’ violence.

There is little doubt that Pakistan’s security and intelligence agencies are carrying out various acts of human rights violations in Balochistan and elsewhere. Case in point: The recent ‘disappearances’ of Salman Haider and Waqas Ghoria amongst other social media activists and the death of Sabeen Mahmud in the not so distant past.

So when I heard that there was a conference — a side-event at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the UNOG — on social justice issues borne out of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the enforced disappearances of social and political activists in Balochistan, I had to investigate for my own curiosity. Who were these individuals trying to give the Baloch people a voice at the Palace of Nations in Geneva — individuals that were demanding basic human rights for the common Baloch. I was gobsmacked and saddened at the same time when I saw what I saw.

A fat, boorish, old man lamenting over his ancestors long lost empire in private gatherings — of course, this banished Khan of Kalat was surrounded by vassal hopefuls who were eager to indulge. While the vassals and liegemen of the Khan’s imaginary empire did not have their heads in the cloud — theirs’ was a Pascal’s wager; they had nothing to loose from indulging the Khan in his kopfkino production. Kopfkino literally, ‘head cinema’ is a expression in German that is used to express the state of creating imaginaries in your head. This German expression captures the essence of the imaginations of the Khan, how his entourage reassured this ‘emperor’ that he was wearing clothes.

Keeping his distance from me he refused to answer most of my thought provoking questions as if I was one of his royal subjects overstepping my position — a mutineer whose head he would demand on a stake under normal circumstances. His other strategy was to avoid me — once he even ran for the tram upon seeing me and a journalist friend next to the Broken Chair sculpture outside the UNOG. From a distance, he feigned Khan well, but his entourage and his manner gave it up. “He is just a name, nothing more” an old Baloch friend — a high ranking Mazari — told me when I talked to him about my encounters with the Khan of Kalat. The Khan set up a formal interview with me three times and then cancelled each time. Just before he decided to cancel the second time, he demanded that I show him the questions I was planning to ask first. “I will not answer this and this one is a political question, I am not a politician. This too, I will not answer” and in this fashion he excluded the possibility of me asking any of my planned questions and ran off promising to meet me four hours later at ten O’clock. While a friend and I sat and waited for our pot-bellied Khan in the lobby of the Hôtel Royal on the Rue de Lausanne for the third and the last time, we met a spellbinding fellow from India. Wearing a mandarin collar Massimo Dutti shirt in blue, this gentleman in his late forties introduced himself in the most humble fashion. And when I asked him for his profession in an effort to further our small talk, he politely said: “Oh, I am just a corporate slave.” Normally something that I would perceive as a preemptive ploy to keep critics of the corporate life off your back, seemed like a humble cry of someone’s conflict-inflicted soul this time. His expensive clothing was not flashy and his non-existent ego did not affect his calm confidence. We talked about the Frontier Gandhi — Bacha Khan — which made me think that this hotel lobby friend of mine looked so much like the late pacifist himself. Maybe this association working subconsciously was what prompted a friend of mine from Peshawar to bring up Bacha Khan, I later thought. When we talked about how my visa to India was recently rejected, he kept apologising and I kept telling him that I don’t blame him or any individual for that matter.

The Khan reappeared at about ten-thirty and I excused myself from Himesh (name changed to protect identity), my new Indian friend. As soon as he saw me he waved a no with both his hands, a Russian journalist who had been told that the Khan will talk to him at ten-thirty also received the same gesture. Both of us looked at each other and then the Khan, just then, Marat — the Russian journalist — demanded a reason from the Khan. The Khan exclaimed “No reason!” as if his royal subjects had stepped out of line. I presumed his imagination of a sycophanitc interview was crushed when he caught a preview of our prospective questions earlier that evening — we will never know for sure, but I have a fair amount of faith in my presumption; judging from some of his interviews with other sycophant media institutions.

At about ten-forty on that early spring night, a strange constellation of people, who had become friends because of an unusual series of events in Geneva, decided it was time to hit a pub. Here Kafkaesque tales involving the roles of RAW, CIA, ISI and the Chinese with regards to the CPEC, Baluchistan and the Mujahideen amongst other issues were shared. In that moment, I couldn’t help but think how Bishan Singh of Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh must have felt in that mental asylum — while all the loonies gave their opinions on what was going on.

Another ‘voice’ of the Baloch hovering around the UNOG was an overweight young man with hair kept tightly in place with his black sunglasses. Wearing a shiny expensive watch and a kitschy golden buckle on a red belt, he was touted as the “Nawab” of the Marri tribe. According to one of his henchmen he was ‘the’ Baloch representative to the UN. I wondered how many of those there were.

If the Khan was and uncultured arrogant pretend, the ‘Nawab’ was an arrogant fool. Mehran Marri is actually the youngest son of the much revered late Marxist revolutionary, Nawab Khair Baksh Marri and as such is and cannot be the actual Nawab. To his credit, he did talk to me, but most of what he had to say was full of contradictions and rhetoric. He had less than half the charisma of his late father and foresight nowhere near that of his father — with whom I think the real Baloch revolutionary struggle died. Mehran repeatedly tried to play on identity politics, pitting ‘the Punjabi’ against ‘the Baloch’ — as if the ‘Punjabi’ and the ‘Baloch’ were primordial, monolithic identities, inherently oppositional because of their mere existence. I wanted to mention that a person trying to make daily ends meet or a woman under patriarchal oppression does not care for your binary opposition between the ‘Punjabi’ and the ‘Baloch’ — I retained myself because that would have been a conversation-stopper. As a consequence of my neutrality, he continued provocatively, oblivious to the paradoxes inherent in his arguments. Dressed like the Italian-American mafia of the 70s he accused the army generals of wearing “western clothes” and trying to wipe out “Baloch culture, clothes and food.” “The military plays the Muslim card and recruits jihadis to fight its proxy wars, in an effort to thin-out the Baloch cause!” Mehran Marri then wailed.

True as it may be — not to mention a policy that has backfired in the face of the Pakistani security agencies — the fact that he mentioned this right before playing the same card himself, was, to say the least, a bit ironic. His “culture” was being adulterated by the “Na’pak Punjabi” and who according to him are violating human rights and committing a genocide in Balochistan. Such claims no matter who they come from — even if it is someone who according to the state is allegedly affiliated to hardliner and extremist organisations — should be thoroughly probed.

Yes, Mehran Marri amongst other feudal lords might be banking on the suffering of the average Baloch, but we too should be aware of the fact that human rights violations are being committed by the Pakistani security agencies in Balochistan. It is also a fact that NGOs such as Amnesty International as well as journalists are not allowed into the region under the pretext of security concerns. That many activists and journalists have disappeared and/or been killed; sometimes by the Pakistani security agencies in an effort to make Balochistan ‘secure’ and sometimes by one of the many factions fighting for the ‘freedom’ of Balochistan. By critiquing both, I am probably fair game for both if I ever step into the region. And this is not a mere speculation. A friend of mine who is conducting research on Baloch nationalism and human rights issues in Baluchistan at the Heidelberg University told me that men are subjected to forced disappearances by both, the government and the tribal leaders/feudal lords alike. If the tribal leader suspects you of colluding with the government you are no more safe than when the government thinks you are an acolyte of the tribal leader — in actuality you may be neither, but facts are irrelevant.

In Geneva, around the time of the 34th session of the Human Rights Council, a number of other Baloch ‘voices’ were present. While individuals like the seventy-five-year-old Mama Qadeer — at the risk of their lives — conduct long marches in order to highlight Baluchistan’s conundrum and raise awareness, these goons — who were either a part of the Khan’s or the ‘Nawab’s’ entourage; some of them seemingly ran an NGO — were busy hatching schemes to smear Pakistan. I say smear, not because I think Pakistani authorities are not guilty of human rights violation — they are and I am very well aware of that. I say smear because the means that they were employing were no different from when Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) indulges in its propaganda. I shall refrain from naming the organisation since it, even if for the wrong reasons, brings some awareness about the Baloch issue to an international platform. Was this organisation working for your average Baloch who suffers because of direct military violence or indirect structural violence, I could not tell. Was it working for the individuals who were a part of its administration, for sure.

Both the Khan and the Nawab are probably in their expensive Geneva hotels on the Rue de Lausanne or at a pub nearby, the military generals in their luxurious cantonment villas, I think to myself while writing in my dingy hotel room. Am I too a hypocrite? A bigot? Not so different from all these men using the average Baloch’s suffering; after all, I am using it to further my writing career, I ask myself. Then, in true consequentialist fashion, I reassure myself that my action — i.e. of writing — can only have one negative effect, and that would by my own security. The positive effects outweigh the negative ones I tell myself and decide to conclude this piece in an effort to bring to light the human rights violations at the hands of the Pakistani security agencies as well as the opportunistic attitude of the various Baloch ‘nationalists’ that I met.

The Pakistani military wants to keep carrying on its business and of course, it wants its monopoly over violence to continue without checks and balances. The feudal lords want to set up shop right opposite. Each sees the other, from their subjective position as an illness for the region of Balochistan. While the objective pathology of the disease lies in their cooperative contention, culminating in the suffering of the average citizen of Balochistan. The business of violence has been nationalised by the Pakistani state but the business of human rights is open to all; the masqueraders and the swindlers are capitalising at the expense of your average Baloch.

Only time will tell if the real solution lies in a ‘free’ Baluchistan, or in the ‘development’  and ‘opportunities’ brought by the CPEC. But in the meanwhile the Pakistani nationalists need to be highly critical of what is really going on in Baluchistan in the name of development, growth and security while the Baluch nationalists need to critically evaluate the rhetoric of a ‘free’ Baluchistan. We need to objectively call out the violations of basic human rights in Baluchistan — demand rights for the people regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or lingual etc. affiliations — whether by state or by tribal leaders. This can only start when we start to empathise with the ‘other’ regardless of his/her identity, extending every individual the most basis right i.e. the right to have rights. (First published in THE NATION)

By Usman Mahar

The writer is an anthropologist at the Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg. He studies healthcare and wellbeing within and across different socioeconomic structures and cultural settings. Of particular interest to him are the issues of structural violence in inherent in healthcare access and ageing. His other interests include; issues of identity in a globalised world, a moral-philosophical approach towards politics and human rights and issues of gender and sexuality. Follow him on Twitter


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: