Religion must be a personal matter of the citizens not the system of a state: Malik Siraj Akbar
With reference to Balochistan we interviewed Malik Siraj Akber. Malik is a US-based journalist as well as the editor-in-chief of the Baloch Hal, the first online English language newspaper of Balochistan province and a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. In 2010-11, Akbar was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University while in 2012, the National Endowment for Democracy (N.E.D), a Washington DC-based organization, awarded him a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship where he researched the political assassinations, enforced disappearances and attacks on journalists in Balochistan. His writings mainly focus on the Baloch nationalist movement, human rights, press freedom, sectarian killings in Pakistan, the war on terror and U.S.-Pakistan relations. Much to his credentials, He has interviewed leading Pakistani government officials serving in Balochistan and the leaders of the Baloch nationalist movement. In addition to that, he has authored a book, ‘’The Redefined Dimensions of the Baloch Nationalist Movement’’ which was released in 2011.
Interviewed by Jameel Jansheer
(Blv stands for Bolan Voice and MSA for Malik Siraj Akbar)
Blv: You got political asylum in U.S on the base that journalists aren’t protected in Balochistan, after attainment of asylum how you are raising voice for Balochistan’s journalists?
MSA: I have been trying to create awareness among the rest of the Pakistanis and also the international community about the conflict in Balochistan, particularly the plight of journalists, through my articles, interviews, public talks and panel discussions. I have highlighted the central challenges of the news media in Balochistan on prestigious platforms like CNN, Al-Jazeera, BBC, Voice of America, Washington Post and several American universities and think-tanks. I am a member of the Press Freedom Committee of the National Press Club in Washington DC which provided me an opportunity to closely interact with organizations like Reporters Without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Freedom House to educate them about what is happening in Balochistan with regards to issues of press freedom. You can see that organizations like CPJ and Amnesty International have significantly increased their reporting on Balochistan because we immediately reach out to them to bring into their attention certain incidents that happen in Balochistan. My 2012 research at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Washington D.C, where I was a Regan-Fascel Democracy Fellow, focused on threats to journalists in Balochistan. I have given public presentations about the risks of reporting at the annual conference of the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) and events organized by reputed institutions like Harvard University, the Center for Media Assistance, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the American University, and George Mason University etc.
Blv: It has been guessed that you don’t voice-up for Baloch journalists who are victim of establishment’s atrocities (Daily Tawar workers and Baloch areas Journalists), but write for Syed Fahsih Iaqbal who wasn’t son of Baloch land but was a pro-establishment journalist in journalism profession Balochistan chapter?
MSA: In my personal and professional life, I never distinguish between people based on their race and religion. For me, everyone is important regardless of his or her religious, racial and ethnic background. I am disappointed over your question as you classify journalists in ‘Baloch journalist’ and ‘non-Baloch journalist’ categories. Only people who do not read my work can only accuse me of not writing about Baloch journalists. Unfortunately, there are numerous Baloch journalists, such as Mohammad Khan Sasoli, Rematullah Shaheen, Siddiq Edhio, Ilyas Nazar Javid Naseer Rind or even most recently Irshad Mastho, about whose challenges I wrote during their lifetime. At that time, nobody even knew them nor did anyone, either from the government or journalists’ organizations, paid attention to their plight. There is an unfortunate trend of recognizing and celebrating people when they are dead. Nobody talks about them when they are alive and facing serious death threats. For example, in 2009, I wrote about terrorism charges against journalist Rehmatullah Shaeen for the first time in an editorial “Baloch journalist under terrorism charges”. But at that time, nobody paid attention to what he was going through and what he could consequently face. He was eventually killed and dumped in 2012. Similarly, on July 10, 2012, we published a news report about threats to senior journalist Irshad Masthoi but, again, nothing was done until he was killed last month. When journalist Javid Naseer Rind was kidnapped, I wrote an editorial on September 13, 2012. I wrote: “Mr. Rind’s family and well-wishers have every legitimate reason to worry about his forced disappearance because, unfortunately, most of the Baloch journalists who had been kidnapped in the past in a similar pattern were eventually found dead.” Unfortunately, Mr. Rind met the same deadly fate. As far as Syed Fahsih Iaqbal is concerned, I must say several people whom you describe as “not the son of Baloch land” have indeed offered extraordinary services to Balochistan. There is nothing wrong with recognizing and appreciating these people and their services. Through my writings, I would like to tell my readers that you must not judge people’s services based on their ethnicity and religion. I can’t ever imagine myself reaching that level of chauvinism. I was probably the only Baloch journalist who publicly condemned one Baloch armed group’s warnings to BBC reporter Ayub Tareen, who had to flee Quetta owing to death threats. In July 2013, I published an article called “Ten Pakistani friends of Balochistan.” There are several people who are not the ‘son of the Baloch land”, such as the novelist Mohammad Hanif, Tarek Fatah, I.A. Rehman, Hamid Mir (with whom I disagree on numerous matters), Wusatullah Khan, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, Asma Jhangir, Ali Dayan Hassan. However, these people have spoken for the Baloch people on very important platform during very critical times. Their services are commendable and I think we should broaden our circle of such friends instead of insisting that we should appreciate only those who are the ‘sons of the soil’.
Blv: In an interview you spoke Baloch separatist movement commenced after 2006, but before this 5 movements for secession had been fought and present one is follow-up of those, hence how ignoring past movement and turning face from reality?
MSA: I am not sure which interview you are referring to but in that interview I must have been referring specifically to the ongoing Baloch movement. Of course, everyone knows that there had been uprisings in Balochistan in 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1973. The current Baloch movement began in 2004 and intensified in 2006 after the killing of Akbar Bugti. The movement between 2004 and 2006 was not about an independent Balochistan. It gained momentum in resistance to General Musharraf’s so-called mega projects, including the construction of the Gwadar Port. When the interim Prime Minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain formed two parliamentary committees to address the conflict in Balochistan, all Baloch leaders, including the Marri, Mengal and Bugti agreed to meet with senators Wasim Sajad and Mushahid Hussain, who headed these parliamentary committees. While negotiating with those committees, no one including Nawab Bugti, asked for a free Balochistan. Nonetheless, the resistance in 1973 was in reaction to the ouster of the National Awami Party (NAP) government. Had Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto not dismissed the Balochistan government, the NAP leadership would be contented to live with Pakistan. The current movement is a continuation of the Baloch sense of alienation but absolute independence had never been such a prominent part of the past movements. This movement is also the longest among all past resistance battles.
Blv: In above discussed interview you made demand for a ‘Secular Balochistan’, you should elaborate to whom you were addressing? Was that Pakistan, so it is not secular itself and its nature base on religious fundamentalism, consequently how it will bestow you secular environment or Balochistan adorned on a plate?
MSA: With that I meant whether Balochistan remains a part of Pakistan or becomes a free state, I, as an ordinary citizen, wish to see it become a society where religion strictly remains a personal matter of the citizens. The State should not patronize any religion. People should be treated as equal citizens regardless their religion. Secularism is not something that you can only introduce with a constitutional amendment. Secularism is actually a form of social behavior that societies like Pakistan and Balochistan urgently need. The reason I specifically mention Balochistan is because of the increasing attacks on Shias and the recent attacks on the Zikiris in Awaran. As I said earlier, there is several non-Baloch who have offered great services to Balochistan, there are also numerous non-Muslims or non-Sunnis who have made invaluable contributions to our society. We can appreciate their services only by not looking at them from the prism of Muslim versus non-Muslim.
Blv: Do you believe Baloch renaissances without its national-state, because the 67 years history of Pakistan implies purely decay of Baloch identification including cultural and pillage of its resources?
MSA: Well, when you talk of a renaissance then you of course do not want the State to lead it. Renaissance or reformative movements are generally started and led by the local people. There are things that the Baloch cannot achieve because, as you said, the Pakistani state does not want that to happen. But there are also many things for which the Baloch can take ownership without necessarily depending on the government. I think Attaullah Mengal’s decision in 1970s to force Punjabi teachers to leave Balochistan was a historic blunder. I was not even born then but I saw a similar trend in 2010 when Baloch armed groups killed dozens of schoolteachers on issues such as singing Pakistan’s national anthem or hoisting flags in the schools. Human Rights Watch rightly reported about our children saying that “their future is at stake.” Several non-Baloch PhD professors had to leave the province. We should ask ourselves: Is that how we should treat the people who come to teach our children? I would clearly say no. When Dr. Malik Baloch became the chief minister of Balochistan, I wrote an editorial called “Mr. Chief Minister, Bring Back Balochistan’s Teachers.” You can be in support of or against a free Balochistan but that does not justify killing teachers. For a renaissance, it is important that Balochistan’s intellectuals, teachers, not politicians, should decide how our politics and future should look like. When you bring all these important institutions under political influence then you basically take away the society’s ability to question certain political policies and practices. These are some of the biggest challenges we face right now. It is more important whether my child learns how to do his math and science than whether there is a Pakistani flag on the top of his school. That’s insignificant. That should not be the issue at this point as, ironically; all leaders of the Baloch movement also went to the same Pakistani educational institutions. Somebody should ask if these schools could not Pakistanize Balach Marri or Dr. Allah Nazar, how they are going to brainwash our today’s children. Nobody asks these questions for the same reason as I stated that our civil society and educational institutions are not absolutely free. They are expected to take sides either with the government or the nationalists for their survival.
Blv: Through your journalistic works you could bring Baloch Youth on an ideological path but your online-newspaper covers merely aristocrats?
MSA: [Laughs] Aristocrats? Who, besides the people of Balochistan, is not an aristocrat? It is unfortunate but aristocrats have always led the government and the opposition in Balochistan. Besides Dr. Allah Nazar, show me a single Baloch opposition leader who does not come from the aristocracy? Excluding Dr. Malik Baloch, tell me a single Balochistan chief minister who was not an aristocrat? Who are the movers and the shakers of Balochistan? Jams, Jamlis, Magsis, Zehris, Marris, Mengals, Bugtis, Raisanis etc. They are all the same, whether they are in the government or in the opposition. They will never allow an “outsider” come in their ranks and climb the ladder of leadership. Why is it that Jam Ghulam Qadir’s son Jam Yousaf or Ghause Baksh Raisani’s son Aslam Raisani or Saleh Bhothani’s brother Aslam Bhoothani only had to replace them on top government positions? If you look at the opposition, can you imagine that a non-Mengal or Bugti could lead the Balochistan National Party or the Jamori Watan Party? No. So, that’s where our job begins as journalists and writers. Our goal is to encourage free thought in the Baloch society and encourage debate. Through the Baloch Hal, we have prepared, or at least helped, a new generation of young Baloch writers and thinkers. We cover the aristocrats because we don’t live in the fools’ paradise. That’s the reality that these are actually the people in the government and they are the ones who make decisions. Our job as journalists is not to throw people out of power. Our work is to report what the people in the power or the opposition do right or wrong. This is a very slow process but that’s the way forward. I have no qualms in claiming that the Baloch Hal has done Balochistan such a great service that even several government-funded institutions or opposition parties could do that.
Blv: You are well aware that present rulers were disregarded by Baloch masses in passed state’s election and by boycotting people supported to secessionists but you never mentioned this fact to world by your journalistic obligations, what are reasons?
MSA: I was the only Baloch editor who publicly called on the Balochistan National Party and the National Party to boycott the general elections of 2013. On March 13, I wrote an editorial called “Why the Baloch Interests Rest with Boycotting the Elections.” My argument was, “By opting for elections, the Baloch nationalist parties have significantly disappointed the Baloch masses… but participation in the election before punishing those ‘democratic’ leaders who committed human rights abuses in Balochistan…will encourage and cement a culture of impunity and unconditional remission.” Soon after the elections, I described the voter response the “lowest turnout probably ever witnessed in the history of the province.” However, I must say that the participation of the Baloch and Pashtun nationalists, who had boycotted the 2008 elections, gave the 2013 elections more legitimacy. People who are supportive of the free Balochistan movement did not vote but moderate nationalists such as the National Party performed better than what we had expected.
Blv: China by help of establishment looting Baloch resources, and being a Baloch journalist on which level you are hindering this wrong-doings?
MSA: You have to understand that a journalist’s job is not to “hinder” something. Our responsibility is to give alternative policy recommendations. The political leaders, in return, make policy decisions. Chief Minister Dr. Malik Baloch willingly accompanied Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to sign an agreement on Gwadar Port. Now, it is strange that when Baloch nationalists are in power, they actively support controversial government decisions that do not serve the interests of the Baloch people. However, these nationalists complain against Islamabad only when they are ousted from power. Didn’t Sarar Akhtar Mengal, as the Balochistan Chief Minister in 1998, make a similar blunder by driving the car of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Balochistan when the latter had detonated nuclear tests in Chagai? On Gwadar, I opposed Dr. Malik’s decision and I called the agreement with China a “midday robbery”. In my editorial, I suggested that the “Baloch should do whatever it takes to resist the Chinese presence in Balochistan because most of Pakistan’s foreign friends such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not friends of the Baloch. Pakistan uses Balochistan as a ground for all types of experiments ranging from nuclear tests to constructing naval bases for foreign countries.”
Blv: How you are working for Baloch journalists internationally, who are facing various difficulties; lacking of training institutes, financial scarcity, and adverse-environment are most prominent?
MSA: While journalists back home in Balochistan face direct threats to their lives, those among us who live in exile face equally severe financial hardships. Being a journalist in Balochistan does not necessarily make you a journalist in the United States and get a job with a media organization. I would be very honest that I have personally faced the hardest times of my life in the last four years since I got political asylum here in the United States. Finding steady income is the number one challenge here. It is simply not easy to be by yourself in a country with 300 million people (America) without having any connections in places where you wish to find employment. In addition, there are only a few organizations that assist journalists but the situation in countries like Syria and Iraq is so adverse that these organizations hardly have the resources to help every journalist in need. I, as an individual, cannot do much to change the working and living conditions of journalists besides only writing about these issues. Local press clubs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should step forward and initiate projects that address issues of journalists’ safety and training.
Expressed views are interviewer own and do not reflect with magazine policy.