Book Review: From Koh-e-Sulaiman to Koh-e-Batil and Beyond

By Malik Siraj Akbar

Balochistan: From Koh-e-Sulaiman to Koh-e-Batil and Beyond
By Nek Buzdar
Outskirts Press, USA
ISBN-10: ‎ 1977243614

Three challenges have persistently frustrated the high demand for credible information about the Balochistan conflict and the socio-economic dynamics of the province: First, reporters on the ground, threatened with horrific consequences and reprisal for their reporting on the corrupt, controversial and criminal actors, frequently exercise self-censorship. Second, most work on Balochistan is largely propaganda unleashed either by the government or the non-state actors engaged in nationalistic and sectarian battles against each other and striving to earn public support for their respective policies and causes. Third, several recent books on Balochistan are remotely written by authors and scholars based outside the province or who spent limited time in the area.

Amid this confusion on what to read and who to trust, Balochistan: From Koh-e-Sulaiman to Koh-e-Batil and Beyond is a hidden gem on contemporary Balochistan given its author’s, Nek Buzdar, seven-decade-long affiliation with Balochistan, in-depth familiarity with the local culture and languages and extensive connections across the province.

As the author’s autobiographical account, the book has two main stories but eventually converges into one dominant story. For me, the first story that merits full attention and admiration is the author’s personal journey. It is astonishing and awe-inspiring how Buzdar, a Baloch boy born in 1943 in a household of shepherds in Balochistan to barely literate parents ends up as a professor of economics at California State University. However, the author humbly parks his own story and redirects readers’ focus on the story of Balochistan and how various events and government policies of the past seven decades have shaped and impacted the province.

From the beginning of the book, the author seems to promise his readers that if they keep reading, he will take them across the Baloch region and highlight the power and significance of travel in broadening one’s horizons and perspectives by exploring various cultures.

Transformation in Tandojam

The author’s journey outside his little nomadic community begins with a train ride in the 1960s that takes him to the Sindh Agriculture College in Tandojam. On that train ride, the author, for the first time, encounters a fellow Baloch from western Balochistan who speaks a different dialect of Balochi. As they struggle to understand each other’s dialects, this educates him about the diversity and intricacies of the Baloch identity. At Tandojam, he meets Baloch students from Sindh and Punjab and observes their ties with Pakistan’s other ethnic groups.

For instance, he recalls how Sindhi students got agitated when their Baloch counterparts united and asserted one identity. The Sindhis, he notes, insisted that everyone living in Sindh should identify as Sindhi. In response, the Baloch ameliorated the Sindhi anguish with the reminder that the Balochs and the Sindhs are both “victims of the Punjabi domination of the Pakistani federation. Disunity will undermine them and strengthen their common enemy.”

Buzdar’s mobilization of Baloch students from different parts of Pakistan at the Agriculture University under the umbrella of the Baloch Students Association ultimately leads to the formation of the Baloch Students Organization.

Among the Dissidents

Buzdar’s life does not dramatically change in 1968 after returning to Balochistan with a master’s degree in the agriculture economy. He still struggles to find a job but to no avail. A government employee friend instead offers him to travel with him to Saudi Arabia via Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq. That trip opens doors for exploring the region, meeting with its people, and learning about different cultures. The trip takes him to Iraq, where he ends up working for the Iraqi radio station that, under Saddam Hussain’s leadership, was busy broadcasting against his Iranian rivals. Meetings with Iranian Baloch, Kurdish, and Sunni dissidents deepened his understanding of geopolitics and revolutionary movements. 

Through several anecdotes, Buzdar highlights the stereotypical perceptions of people in Iran and Pakistan about the Baloch. He encounters a non-Baloch on a bus in Iran who tells him that the Balochs are barbaric without knowing the author’s ethnic origins. When the author confronts him, saying he, too, is a Baloch, the fellow passenger makes an abrupt crisis management effort by insisting that the Balochs from Pakistan are good people. It is only the Balochs in Iran that he is talking about. But in Pakistan, he also hears a provincial secretary describe the local people as “uneducated, uncivilized, and uncultured.”

The author began his career with the Balochistan government in Agriculture and Planning and Development department in 1968. This gave him access and exposure to the Balochistan government’s inside work and cultivated a network of lifelong colleagues who would subsequently reach the highest levels of the Balochistan bureaucracy. 

After a brief stint working for the government, Buzdar leaves for the United States for higher education. He earns his Ph.D. and starts a career with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). This allows him to visit some of Balochistan’s remotest areas bordering Iran. 

The book is mainly based on his experiences working in the development sector in the province, lessons learned and the meetings with the Baloch intelligentsia during trips to Balochistan.

Prevalent Corruption

Buzdar acknowledges Balochistan’s backwardness and the general sense of deprivation across the province. Still, he minces no words while highlighting the corruption that plagues the Balochistan government at every level. 

“Although extreme corruption in the government is prevalent all over Pakistan,” Buzdar writes, “nowhere is it as rampant as in Balochistan.” He explains that the widespread corruption in the province “has to do with remoteness, lack of supervision and accountability.” In their conversations with the author, several top officials admit that corruption at a mass scale is prevalent in the province, due to which no meaningful economic development programs can succeed.

“… lack of accountability affects education, health, public works, the justice system, law enforcement, and all other departments. It is almost impossible to take any action against a peon or clerk, not to speak of grade 20-21 officials, for misconduct, corruption, or even if they remain absent from duty for years.”

The book comes with invaluable insights on several topics essential to getting a complete picture of the Balochistan insurgency, including the state of the Baloch in Iran, the relations with the Balochs in Karachi, the Sindhis, and the Pashtuns; the Baloch armed groups, their motivations, key leaders and relationship with moderate Baloch nationalist parties.

One area the author deserves plaudits for his courage and honesty is calling out the Establishment for its foolish strategy of allegedly creating death squads and armed local militias in various areas of the province to counter the Baloch nationalists. The author provides a detailed breakdown of who these state-sponsored actors are and how their reckless actions have torn the Baloch society apart and ushered in an era of violence at the grassroots level.

Fears on CPEC

Buzdar provides an expert analysis of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, according to the local sources he spoke to, still view with utter suspicion. Sensing no direct benefits from the CPEC, some Balochs sarcastically brand Bejing’s multibillion project as China-Punjab Economic Corridor. 

The author notes the Baloch fears of CPEC: “Balochistan’s geographical location has again triggered events over the past few years that may determine whether the Baloch will survive as a people or be engulfed by the great civilizations and political powers to the west and the east.”

Buzdar is not dismissive of China’s development work in Balochistan, particularly in Gwadar. Contrary to the populist Baloch nationalistic rhetoric, Buzdar does not think the Chinese intend to “occupy” Balochistan or are they inimical toward the Baloch people. Instead, the veteran economist urges fellow Balochs “to empower themselves through education and unity and prepare themselves to face the great challenges that will come their way in the coming years.”

In the wake of the next general elections, this book is a must-read for all the policymakers and political leaders who want to get a sense of the fundamentals of Balochistan. This book will help join various dots about gaps and policy failures and give an excellent understanding of what the public in Balochistan, whose voices mostly do not reach the rest of the country, want. The book would have been more inclusive had the writer included perspectives from the Baloch youth and women instead of predominantly relying on government officials, intellectuals, and community leaders of almost the same generation with similar experiences.

Buzdar’s journey in itself reaffirms Balochistan’s potential. When awarded a scholarship to get a higher education decades ago, this young Baloch did not disappoint those who believed in his talent. With the proper focus, policies, and investment in Balochistan’s human development, it is still possible to repeat this incredible story. To do that, the government must address issues like enforced disappearances and racial profiling of the Baloch students on Pakistani university campuses that continue to give rise to a new generation of alienated and vengeful Baloch.

Categories: News & Analysis

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