From Bangladesh to Balochistan: Pakistan Owes an Apology

A few prominent Bangladeshi writers have also begun to publicly endorse their government's demand that Pakistan should apologize for the war crimes of 1971 during the country's freedom struggle.

Tahmima Anam, a Bangladeshi novelist, sought a similar apology from Pakistan in an article in the New York Times on December 26, 2013. Interestingly, she hadn't been born when the tragedy in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) occurred.

However, I still feel her pain and unconditionally support the demand she has put forward to Islamabad. What Ms. Anam termed as "history" are actually current affairs to me and the people of my generation from Pakistan's largest province of Balochistan.

In order to properly understand why Islamabad is still reluctant to apologize to Dhaka, the Bengalis will have to understand the history, the context and the current situation in my region, Balochistan.

Before the Bengalis experienced genocide in 1971, Baluchistan, Pakistan's gas-rich province, had already faced three full-fledged operations from the same Pakistani army that subsequently engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Bengalis.

In 1947, the secular Balochistan region, formerly known as the Kalat State, resisted its accession with Islamist Pakistan. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's first governor general and, ironically, the legal adviser of the Kalat State, ordered a military offensive on the Kalat State. Hence. the Baluch lost their sovereignty and became a part of Pakistan on gunpoint.

Pakistan's ruthless treatment of the Baluch should have provided the Bengalis food for thought on how the fledgling Muslim state intended to grapple with political dissent and ethnic nationalism. While the Baluchs, who resisted Karachi's (Pakistan's former capital) exploitation of their mineral wealth, faced deadly operations -- the Bengalis at that time did not speak up in support of the Baluch. They assumed that such brutalities could only happen to smaller ethnicities, not the Bengalis who constituted the majority population in the undivided Pakistan.

While Bangladesh luckily won its freedom from Pakistan in 1971 with the military and diplomatic assistance of India and the sacrifices of around three million people, the Indians and the Bengalis never turned back to see how Pakistan continued to (mis)treat the Baluch. The Bengalis, who had faced genocide, exhibited classic selfishness by never standing with the remaining ethnic minorities in Pakistan.

Two years after the independence of Bangladesh, Pakistan unleashed another military assault on Balochistan that killed thousands of political opponents, tribesmen and professionals. During the general elections of 1970, which led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and the freedom of Bangladesh, the Baluch, just like the Bengalis, did not vote for the left-center Pakistan People's Party. Baluch nationalists, led by the National Awami Party, won the majority seats. Pakistanis violated the Baluch mandate and imprisoned all elected parliamentarians and launched a massive operation to quell political dissent. Thousands of Baluchs were driven out of their homes and the country to languish in neighboring Afghanistan as refugees.

While Pakistan has excessively benefited from the natural gas produced from the Baluch land, it has denied them jobs and sufficient representation in all government institutions. Balochistan has some of the worst social indicators in South Asia.

When nobody objected to Pakistan's killing of the unarmed Baluch political opponents in the first place, the world is left with no moral grounds to ask for an apology for the crimes committed against the Bengalis. In fact, the lack of Bengali protest over the state-terrorism against the Baluch encouraged Pakistan to continue with absolute impunity. It was firstly the Baluch that faced Pakistan's military oppression and then the Bengalis. Pakistan does not apologize from Bangladesh because it is clearly convinced that it can abuse people's rights and still get away with it.

Since 2004, Pakistan has been carrying out an unabated military operation in Balochistan. This is the fifth operation the Baluchs are facing from the army dominated by ethnic Punjabis. Thousands of Baluch political activists, students, writers and doctors have "disappeared" in a fashion similar to Argentina's Dirty War.

Even the Bengalis did not experience such widespread disappearances. Some of the Baluchs have gone missing for nearly a decade. Hundreds of these disappeared people, aged between 18 and 24, are routinely tortured in illegal custody and their dead bodies were thrown in deserted places in what are known as "kill and dump" operations.

Abid Shah, my family doctor's eldest son and our next door neighbor, was killed in a similar fashion. Shah, 30, and I attended an English language class for years in my native town of Panjgur on the Pakistan-Iran border. We played for the Prince Cricket Club. He was an activist of the Baloch Students Organization.

The Pakistani intelligence agents whisked Abid away with two other friends, Abdul Sattar and Safeer Baloch. Coincidentally, Abdul's eldest son, Zaheer Iqbal, was the best student in my Urdu literature class at the Oasis School, a private institution where I taught Urdu and English literature for some years.

Safeer's daughter, Hani, also took some language lessons. I never realized how those classes would pay off one day until I heard Hani bravely speak for her father in an interview with NPR. I felt so proud of her, but also felt devastated how Pakistan had orphaned my promising students from Balochistan.

I vividly remember every single morning how their fathers dropped them at school and stopped by our academic office to discuss their children's progress reports. They were caring fathers. Zaheer and Hani should feel proud of their slain fathers and needless to say they were loving parents.

When the dead bodies of all these three men were found, they had been badly tortured and disfigured so much that it took their families hours to recognize them.

This is not history. This is current affairs. This is what happens in Balochistan almost every day.

Twenty-eight year old Zaheer Anwar Adil and I attended the Government Model High School in Panjgur many years ago. Adil was passionate about politics. He was a smart student and a promising political activist. Pakistan's intelligence agencies abducted him on April 24, 2013. Adil supported the pro-free-Balochistan Baluch Republican Party. His tortured and dead body was found in June. I had jokingly promised to interview him one day if he became a popular politician. Like so many young Baluch boys, he was too young to be slain so callously.

Hundreds of young Baluch of my age have been murdered and thousands are still missing. Pakistan does not offer an apology nor does it feel accountable for its actions.

In a way, Pakistan's confidence comes from the billions of dollars it receives from the United States. Washington deliberately closes its eyes when its South Asian ally commits human rights abuses against its ethnic and religious minorities. While the Bengalis suffered because of President Nixon's indifference, the Baluchs are a victim of Obama's negligence and tolerance for Pakistan's indulgence in the Baloch massacre.

Unless the world intervenes in Baluchistan to end what American journalist Selig S. Harrison described as the "slow-motion genocide" of the Baluch, Islamabad will express no regrets with what it did with the Bengalis.

In addition, the Bengalis should not suffice with an apology. Ironically, almost every Pakistani ruler apologized to the Baluch. But everyone who apologized to the Baluch ended up killing more of them in even worse operations than ever witnessed in the past. The Bengalis, just like the Baluch, should instead ask impartial international tribunals to put Pakistani army officers and intelligence agents on trial responsible for the killing of thousands of our people. Forgiving and forgetting will only empower and emboldens human rights abusers.

Lastly, writers, intellectuals and human rights defenders from ethnic and religious minority groups across the world and in different regions should form professional alliances to highlight under-reported tragedies. It is better to save human lives by highlighting an issue on the right time instead of seeking an apology once a massacre has already taken place.