Pakistani liberals fight many fights that ultimately benefit the people and polity of the country. They fight for greater democracy, for women, for minorities, for the environment, for secularism. These fights are difficult, and for many, life-threatening. And these liberals get labelled “anti-national” for fighting them.

Pakistani liberals are seen by everyone else in Pakistan as anti-military, or anti-Islam, but it is not difficult for them to reply that Islam and the military are not the gatekeepers of Pakistani nationalism, as both institutions claim to be.

Liberal Pakistani nationalism is civic: it is a belief in equal rights, in prosperity, in secularism, in moral progress, in Misbah-ul-Haq, in Coke Studio, in Malala Yousafzai.

But there’s one very large black hole – as big as half the country – that makes Pakistani liberals, and I include myself as one, far less certain in their moral rectitude.

The dilemma

On Balochistan, Pakistani liberals face a choice: to endorse the Baloch push for independence or not. Endorsing the Baloch claim for independence means embracing many causes that liberals have taken on anyway: ethnic and minority rights, extensive restrictions on the military’s actions, and self-determination. But it would also mean affirming the epithet of anti-national, since it would entail literally arguing for the (further) dissolution of Pakistan.

What kind of patriot does that?

If liberals do not endorse Balochistan’s struggle for independence, then they could argue that they believe in the unity and territorial integrity of the Pakistani State (whatever is left of it anyway) and also in the fundamental Pakistaniyat of everyone, including the Baloch, who lives between the Durand and the Radcliffe lines.

They could argue that Pakistanis have their own tryst with destiny, and that they need to be ready for it together. But it would also mean that they ignore the basic desire of the Baloch to be independent, and endorse the State’s efforts to keep the country together.

Understandably, they have skirted around this stark choice. They hold the belief that if the state upholds the rights the Baloch are legally entitled to, then their struggle for independence wouldn’t be necessary. Following things generally get discussed when it comes to Baloch rights.

A generous redistribution of wealth and resources, including the minerals and natural gas buried under Balochistan’s own soil. Dividends from infrastructure projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Gwadar seaport. More schools, hospitals, roads, sewage, drinking water, civil servants, teachers, investment, trade. An end to forced disappearances and extrajudicial detention and executions. Freedom of the press. Security.

The belief is that if all these things are provided, then the Baloch call for azadi would dissipate, or at least mellow down. (That said, it is a firmly held liberal belief that the state is morally obliged to provide the above to Balochistan, regardless.)

It is the same way we think about Bangladesh. Its loss was a tragedy, which could have been avoided had the state granted the rights East Pakistan had asked for, and allowed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to become prime minister.

But I’m not quite sure.

Chicken and egg

First, ultimately nationalism is a feeling. It doesn’t oscillate in tandem with growth indicators and bank accounts. Even if Pakistan devoted all its resources to getting Balochistan at par with other provinces, there is little to believe they will feel more Pakistani and less Baloch by the end of it. Look at Scotland or Catalunya – or Kashmir.

Second, it’s a chicken and egg argument. The reason why the military effectively runs Balochistan (well, more effectively than the rest of the country) and conducts extrajudicial killings is because of the separatism. The army fears that if it doesn’t deal with Baloch separatism with these measures, it will go the way of East Pakistan and separate. So separatism prompts the army’s response, and the army’s response prompts separatism. This co-dependent relationship may not end the way we liberals envision it. If the army stops its activities (and for the simple sake of what is right, I hope they do) but Baloch nationalism gets even louder, I don’t know what liberals would do.

I blame the United Nations. When the international organisation was founded after the end of the Second World War, two separate clauses were put in its founding documents that were equal in their moral weight, but were still profoundly paradoxical.

The first, “all people have a right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status”. It’s the one the Pakistani establishment has been banging on about on Kashmir since 1947.

And the second, of sovereignty: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” It is the one Pakistan complains about when Modi declares how chummy he is with the Baloch and Gilgitis.

How can a people have a right to self-determination if nations have a right to protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity, by force if they have to?

This basic paradox is at the centre of Pakistani liberals’ Balochistan dilemma, and to solve it they must partition the term. To remain Pakistani, they cannot endorse Baloch independence. To remain liberal, they cannot honestly believe in Pakistaniyat – or at least one that includes Balochistan.