The Importance of Narratives in Peace Building: Way Forward for Balochistan

By: Dr. Mir Sadaat

The role of people is fundamental in any social change. Without them, it is difficult to bring about or analyse a change. The role of people in societies like Pakistan becomes more vital as they are highly differentiated and still struggling to create a unified identity. Pakistan was created as a nation of contradictions. Despite the secular foundation laid by the founder, the country has turned into a haven for fundamentalists. Since the inception resilience has been part of the narrative, clouded by the single-issue lens of extremism through which outsiders have lately viewed the nation. Attention has deflected away from the firmness and strength of its underlying social structure that has empowered the nation to endure numerous crises.

Ever since its creation, Pakistan has pursued a well-orchestrated official nationalism in search of solace in the crisis. Concentrated media combined with a dysfunctional educational system has led to the diffusion of mistrust and misrepresentations. The intellect of the country is made subservient through bribes or fear. The vast majority of literate Pakistani is forced to absorb the official truths and take comfort in scepticism, ignorance, and believe in conspiracy theories. The habit of public denial coupled with self-glorification of an imagined past has pushed the country into a crisis, because of which Pakistan is under far more serious threat than it previously was. 

The country is facing enemies within and outside; the media attributes all its problems to invisible external hands while ignoring the historically precise causes of internal decline and decay. We find it hard to develop a national identity among our diverse population. History is distorted for ideological and political gains; hence people cannot develop a historical consciousness. The nation is striving to shape the outer and inner forms of its identity. There is just an emerging structural imbalance in the state due to centre-province tension, weak political parties and the suppressed media. This has resulted in a centralised state with a federal form of government. There have been several attempts by the centre to resolve the tension, but all such attempts were no more than rhetoric. Balochistan is the epicentre of this tension, where value of human life is nothing more than a tool to advance ideologies and hate. The intimating context coupled with hate and mistrust is making it difficult to achieve peace. 

The major part of building peace comes from a state of empathy, however creating this behaviour is not as simple as it sounds. As Mother Teresa said, ‘if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.’ To crate that belonging we need to decolonise peace. As asserted by Kirthi Jayakumar decolonising peace arises “from a decolonization of the mind; from the cognitive and emotional understanding that individuals do not necessarily need expert outsiders and their resources to shape their daily lives, or more importantly, to bring them peace.” Storytelling is effectively a route to decolonising one’s mind, since individuals arrive at a cognitive and emotional awareness of how potent a tool for change, they are. All they need to do is to speak their own narratives.

A narrative is a system of stories that helps people make sense of their experiences and create a coherent view of the world. Based on the information, events and environment we are exposed to across our lives, the narratives we subscribe to often appear as common sense. They unconsciously shape our understanding of ourselves in society, including our beliefs about identity, community, group belonging and relationships with ‘others’. Narrative in turn guides how members of different social groups relate to one another and mobilise for social and political action. Depending on how they are used, narratives contribute to either deepening or mitigating the conflicts that are bound to arise among groups over time.

Conflict is a natural and even healthy part of any society. If managed in a constructive way, conflict can help societies address group grievances, strengthen social cohesion and improve state accountability and services, thereby facilitating sustainable peace. By contrast, if badly managed or supressed for too long as it is happening in Balochistan, conflict can feed group grievances and weaken social trust and institutions, to the point where influential stakeholders – ranging from political, civic and business leaders to elite, non-elite and opposition groups – see violence as the most viable option for advancing their interests. The grievances that drive conflicts in Balochistan mostly stems from institutional factors such as the use and abuse of state organs by those in power, the nature of civil society, the media, and the distribution of power and wealth among regions and social groups.

The state needs to realize that the ongoing effects of negative structural and institutional factors are influencing Baloch’s lived experience and form the foundations of grievances, which are gradually accumulating and intensifying in response to political, social and economic developments. This is pushing Balochistan along the pathway to violence. This bring us to the big question what should be done in such situation. The fundamental need of the hour is narrative building.

Narratives are central to the formation, evolution and management of all conflicts. Groups and individuals have numerous and intersecting narratives about their identity and place in society, which are shaped by structural and institutional factors and affected by events. When grievances accrue, narratives provide the moral architecture that serves as the justification and impetus for people’s actions.

Narratives can encourage social engagement and political action to address the core issues that creates grievances. They can also inflame them and divide societies to the point that the core issues are eclipsed. As in case of Balochistan the core issues are eclipsed by hate and mistrust from both sides. Narratives must acquire a life and force of their own they must not be depended on anyone else’s narrative. Countering narratives can serve to deepen social divisions, increase polarisation or justify violence.

 The power of narratives to generate violence must not be underestimated. Policymakers and stakeholders working for peace must constantly look for windows of opportunity to engage with national and subnational narratives in order to shift a society’s trajectory away from destructive forms of conflict. Timely and decisive action in response to any crisis or event can amplify constructive narratives, thus strengthening pathways to peace.

When severe polarisation occurs as in case of Balochistan, then the risks of violence grow and it becomes difficult to see, let alone address, the structures and relations that underpin the conflict and require change. At this point in Balochistan the state is not able to understand the structural flaws that is enticing the Baloch conflict and turning the youth into hate mongers.  As this tension between the state and Baloch is growing any interventions in the political, social and economic arenas is more likely to inflame further grievances and decrease engagement, resulting in escalation of conflict, and bring more violence to Balochistan from both sides.

This implies narrative creation is the first option to understand and resolve the Baloch conflict on the following lines.  First, narrative engagement is an act of making meaning together. It is best done through dialogue with our intended audiences and not alone in a conference room with those who already think alike. Secondly, awareness-raising about peacebuilding is no longer sufficient, and we can’t just focus on messaging for our needs. Thirdly, we cannot be over-reliant on policy arguments and unreliable discourses alone. Finally, we need to continue to fund social-science research and partner with academic institutions to explore effective frames for peacebuilding.

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