Siddiq Baloch had a personality that made a distinct impression on people who met him. He was a moving force, fiercely proud in the Baloch tradition. His inquiring mind led him to explore independently, never willing to take other people’s account of reality. It also made him a fine journalist in Pakistan’s English language newspaper, Dawn where he sought answers to the nation’s intractable problems.
I met Siddiq upon joining the Dawn Reporters Room in 1984. His rugged, warrior like appearance belied the sensitivity that lay underneath. Foremost in his personae was a commitment to seeing justice, prominently for the people of Baluchistan. Moreover, his energy and bustling humor brought life to the city desk where we reported to encapsulate the politics of an ever-burgeoning Karachi.
It was a period when Gen. Zia ul Haq had ushered in military rule and when journalists and management alike walked a tight rope of censorship. As an activist in the National Awami Party and a follower of Ghaus Baksh Bijenzo, Siddiq was imprisoned for five years by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto under the Hyderabad conspiracy case and freed only after Gen. Zia overthrew Bhutto’s government.
Notwithstanding the twists and turns in Pakistan’s politics, Siddiq kept up his unrelenting opposition to military rule. He was elected president of the Karachi Union of Journalists in 1981, at a critical juncture in history. Thereafter, he energetically worked around Gen. Zia’s draconian laws against the print media, which was then the primary source of news and information.
The MQM led by Altaf Hussain was just then consolidating its grip on Karachi. The city was divided on ethnic lines even as it burned during violence, strikes and curfew.
Driving into the Dawn newspaper compound, I would see Siddiq Baloch energetically revving up his motor bike, with our mild-mannered Sindhi colleague Ghulam Ali clutching the rear. The two would zoom off to expeditions to Liaquatabad, Nazimabad, Orangi Town and far flung areas of Karachi, where MQM was testing out its new-found strength.
By late evening the two returned triumphantly from the frontlines, with eye-witness accounts of a city that had turned into a battlefield.
Both these colleagues lived in Lyari, where the lines between Baloch and Sindhis have blurred, and which added to the sense of fraternity one saw between them.
Ghulam Ali, who sat next to me, popped a joke every few minutes. The jokes were often about martial law, and what the average person… the barber or the rickshaw driver had said about the khakis. It complemented Siddiq’s remarks, who kept up his cynical commentary on military rule.
Lighter moments with Ghulam Ali and Siddiq Baloch stand out in memory. It was a hot, muggy summer evening in the Dawn Reporters Room, when fans circulated the stale air. Sweat dribbled down my colleagues and the grumbling grew louder that we had been condemned to work in a non-ventilated cubby hole.
Suddenly, the door opened and Siddiq and Ghulam Ali entered shirtless – wearing only vests over trousers. I laughed with delight at the sight of the two of them. They looked so comic in their zeal to show the bosses our plight. Siddiq sent for a photographer, where he dutifully took pictures of the burly, sweaty men typing away without their shirts.
Word got out to the management that two planned to keep up their shirtless protest. But one day of high drama served the cause of propaganda. In due course, an air conditioner was installed in the cubby hole and we were eventually able to type away in peace.
Siddiq had a sense of camaraderie that made him engage with every colleague. In the evenings, our short statured bulky colleague, Sabihuddin Ghausi would enter the Reporters Room with aplomb – newspapers rolled in one hand and a cigar in the other. Invariably, Siddiq looked up from his typewriter and in his inimical style teased Ghausi with an affectionate slight:
“Here comes the drug mafia!”
Ghausi was unfazed. While Siddiq was getting into economic reporting, Ghausi was the soul of Dawn’s Economic and Business Review (EBR) section – ferreting news with his penetrating intellect and sense of integrity. Siddiq shared Ghausi’s serious economic bent, even as he focused on Balochistan’s political economy – of which he became a notable authority.
I would see Siddiq’s mischievous smile around our colleague, Hameed – known by his by-line H.A. Hamied. Our colleague distinguished himself from the `riff raff’ by his starched white shirts, suspenders and supercilious remarks.
Whenever I heard Hamied say, `Har Shakh pey Uloo Baitha Hai’ (there’s an owl on every branch) I knew he was heaping contempt on some character being discussed in the room. Straightforward to the core, Siddiq would join the banter. He jokingly called Hamied by his by-line, Humaiy-eed to make him sound refined.
Siddiq’s other friends from Lyari were Latif Baloch and Aleem Pathan – both of whom worked with him in the sub-editor’s room. In time, Latif Baloch also joined reporting, bringing the flair of the locality to which he and Siddiq belonged.
Fair skinned Aleem was a Pathan from Lyari, who walked slowly and smoked in deliberate fashion. He told me that foreign journalists mistook him for Italian. When Siddiq was not around, Aleem would transport Ghulam Ali on his motor bike to riot-stricken areas like Orangi town.
Even when the 1985 Mohajir Pathan riots had peaked in Orangi town, Ghulam Ali would return from the affected area with a new joke. Returning from a dangerous expedition with Aleem, Ghulam Ali narrated with his flair for drama:
“When I turned around and said Aleem… he put his finger to his lips and said, Shhh go no further.” Aleem could have been concerned that Ghulam Ali would blow his cover, that he was no foreigner!
As was his habit, Siddiq liked to chuckle at his buddy’s jokes – which changed according to the seasons.
It was this sense of camaraderie that kept us going under the toughest circumstances. Once, Siddiq walked into the Reporters Room and picked on me – the only young woman among middle aged male colleagues. He began to sound the alarm that the Taliban were coming…. they would drive me off my job and make me stay at home.
As was Siddiq’s nature, he joked so energetically that for a while I thought he was serious. But I stood my ground and returned his verbal fire, telling him that even Mohammed Bin Qasim soldiers could not put my family in purdah. Knowing that I took his banter as “friendly fire,” Siddiq withdrew his joking offensive.
On another occasion, Siddiq had just returned from Saddar where he had an altercation with a police man who tried to ticket him on the ground that his motor bike was “illegally parked.” Knowing this was a prelude to taking a bribe, he narrated to me… eyes flashing as they did when he was animated… what he had said to the policeman:
I told him, “The whole government is illegally parked, and you talk about my motorbike!”
Each week the editor of Dawn, Ahmed Ali Khan would summon our weekly meeting. The meetings were more akin to showing presence in an imperial court rather than to elicit debate. While other reporters generally spoke to please the editor, Siddiq spoke with the conviction that showed he was his own boss.
Once in a while Dawn’s editor asked Siddiq for an update on his signature pieces – among them the Saindak copper and gold mine project in Balochistan. Siddiq gave updates on how Saindak had fallen victim to bureaucratic wrangling with the Punjab. Listening to him over the years, to me the Saindak project began to sound as intractable as the problem of Kashmir.
With his fierce Baloch nationalism, Siddiq was not one to give up. As late as 2017, he returned to the issue of Saindak mines, then being run by the Chinese. In an article written in the newspaper, he owned, The Daily Balochistan Express, Siddiq expressed his life-long desire that the people of Balochistan should benefit from their own resources.
“The Federal Government should surrender all the revenue in favor of the Government of Balochistan for the simple reason that the Government had failed to develop the basic infrastructure for future development during the past 70 long years.”
While Siddiq did not live to see the Saindak mines benefit the Baloch people, he saw China help construct the road network around Gwadar Port in Balochistan. Having traveled on the roads that were built under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, he told me with a touch of sarcasm aimed at the Pakistan government.
“More roads have been constructed in these parts in the last few years than in 70 years of Pakistan’s existence.”
Being firmly grounded among his people, it was but natural that Siddiq would leave Dawn in 1989 and move to Balochistan to start his own newspaper. It was a risky decision, given the financial capital needed to survive in a province with a low literacy rate.
Indeed, Siddiq’s first newspaper publication `Sindh Express,’ did not survive. Undeterred, he pursued his passion and a few years later began publishing `The Balochistan Express.’
I glimpsed his sense of independence at the time he left Dawn. His parting words have stayed with me:
“I’ll eat grass but I won’t eat from the `seth’ (boss).”
Seated next to me, Ghulam Ali wistfully remembered Siddiq long after he had left. With his incorrigible sense of humor, he kept joking about how all the newspapers Siddiq had been publishing… `Sindh Express,’ `Balochistan Express,’ `English Weekly Express,’… sounded like “railway timetables.”
Being an office bearer of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and the Karachi Union of Journalists, Siddiq kept returning to Karachi to speak at events that promoted freedom of expression and a living wage for media workers.
After the events of September 11, 2001, I was living in the US when an international media organization, Internews sponsored me to visit the border areas of Afghanistan to report on the state of the media. My research into Balochistan’s media found numerous “dummy publications” out to get advertising revenue, and newspapers that “paid” reporters by merely giving them the organization’s visiting cards.
Despite the poverty levels and the terrorism that engulfed Balochistan because of the war in Afghanistan, Siddiq Baloch kept the flame of journalism alive. Apart from the English language newspaper, The Balochistan Express, he also became chief editor of the Urdu language Azadi newspaper.
In recent years while visiting Karachi from the US, I drove through Saddar when the light turned red. With my car stopped at the signal, lo and behold I saw Siddiq Baloch approaching on foot – with an entourage of young men behind him. Instinctively, I put out my hand and shook hands with him. His smile was just as energetic and encompassing, even though our paths had long since diverged.
In July 2016, Siddiq Baloch spoke at the launch of the expanded edition of my book `Aboard the Democracy Train,’ at the Quetta Press Club. The book had arrived late, and my ex colleague had not had the opportunity to read it. Still, he spoke generously about our years in Dawn – leaving me touched by his observations.
That was the last time I saw Siddiq Baloch. Despite being diagnosed with cancer in 2014, he had kept up a brave face. Indeed, when I expressed my concern to him about not being well, he brushed off any suggestion that his health was in decline.
Meanwhile, creeping commercialization of the electronic media also took a toll on Siddiq’s attempt to promote journalism. After 2001, investors with little experience of media had obtained TV licenses – hiring non-journalists and young women for infotainment rather than news. Their golden rule was to stay in the good books of the government.
With declining advertising revenues and a tighter military grip on news, the space shrank further for a print era journalist like Siddiq Baloch.
Indeed, Baloch nationalists who protested against the theft of their resources were still being `disappeared’ and their bodies found in wastelands. The military painted as `anti-state’ the voices that expressed concern at Baloch marginalization by China’s investment in their province.
Six months before he passed away, Siddiq sounded dejected about the government’s clampdown on the media.
It concerned me to hear Siddiq say that his right of expression was being muffled not only in print but in speech. Still, knowing him to be an adept political worker, I figured he was laying low until the wind blew over.
Despite his ailment, Siddiq was preparing his family members to run his newspapers. They would be equipped with the baton of the press that advocates the genuine rights of the people of Balochistan
In February 2018, Siddiq Baloch joined the list of my colleagues in the Dawn Reporters Room – Huzoor Ahmed Shah, Saghir Ahmed, H.A. Hamied, Aleem Pathan, Ghulam Ali, G.D. Ghauri, Ali Kabir, Shamim ur Rehman and Sabihuddin Ghausi – who departed the earth.
Among them, Siddiq Baloch stands out as a moving force who inspired a generation of journalists to write passionately about Pakistan… and his beloved province of Balochistan… at a time when the business of building the nation is still unfinished.