On Facebook, many Baloch users are changing the way they write their names. Taj Baloch has become Táj Balóc.
He was the first to do that in 2012. A linguist and poet, he has been leading a campaign for years to change the script in which Balochi – an Indo-Iranian language spoken by approximately 20 million state-less people spread throughout the world — is written from Arabic to a modified version of Latin.
He was initially told by friends and colleagues he was chasing a mirage. But now hundreds of young social media users, influential writers and academies working on Balochi are following in his footsteps.
I asked him why to bother to adopt a new script when Balochi is being written in the Arabic script for over eight decades.
“The Arabic script is a major factor in the under-development of the Balochi language. Native Balochi speakers can easily read Urdu, also written in the Arabic script, but they find it hard to read their own language in the same script. You know why, Balochi is a vowel-sensitive language and the Arabic script supports only consonant-sensitive languages.”
He cited dozens of examples of how the Arabic script confused Balochi in writing. There are three different words for three different things –lion, milk, poetry – with three unique vowel sounds in Balochi. But when you write them in the Arabic script, they look the same.
In the Arabic script, vowels are usually dropped. Only in religious texts, consonants are regularly accompanied by vowels in order to avoid any rare confusion.
“Also, there are only six vowels in Arabic. Balochi has ten. How do you write the additional Balochi vowels in this script?” he argues.
He has other linguistic arguments in the favour of the Latin script, but religion, a dominant force in the region where most of the Baloch people live, plays a significant role in deciding such matters. He’s not the first to try to adopt the Latin script. The very first drafts of written Balochi, which come from British officers during the colonial rule, were also written in Latin. But later, the Arabic script was chosen for religious reasons, as an overwhelming majority of the Baloch follow Islam.
“Turks are also Muslims. Does it affect their faith when they use the Latin script? It’s a totally linguistic issue. Why make it religious?”
He might be technically right. However, in the countries where the Baloch population is based –Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan – even linguistic matters are decided under religious influence.
Syed Hashmi, the man who standardized the current Arabic script for Balochi in the 1950s, was himself convinced that Balochi was better off with the Latin script. He had written although Latin is better for Balochi, they were forced to follow the Arabic script for the time being for several reasons.
In the 1970s, an influential group of Baloch writers, led by Gul Khan Naseer, who was also serving as Pakistani Balochistan’s education minister at the time, tried to change to Latin. He invited a conference to decide on the matter. At the end, they had to give up in the favour of the other group which supported the Arabic script for religious reasons. The group, led by religious and literary figure Khair Mohammed Nadvi, was adamant on keeping the Arabic script.
Naseer, as education minister and a major writer, failed despite his official and literary position. What has changed since then?
“A lot of things have changed,” says Ahmed Yaqoob Hoti, a 27-year-old UAE national, who is leading the new script campaign along with Taj Baloch. “Syed Hashmi had said they were helpless at that time. But the access to the Internet provided people with a virtual platform.”
He says the people were already using Latin characters in text messages and social media posts before his and Taj Baloch’s organized campaign. “But they were not following any standards or spelling conventions. We had to just refine things, standardizing a new script for Balochi using Latin characters.”
Hundreds of thousands of Baloch live in the Arabic-speaking Gulf countries as local citizens. They are now considered a local Arab tribe. Hoti’s grandfather migrated to the Gulf region. His parents, born there, spoke to him in Arabic as he was being raised.
He started learning Balochi as a teenager. He then made several visits to Balochistan to meet Baloch writers and come closer to the culture of his people. What was the driving force behind all these efforts?
When Baloch started a war to separate their land from the rest of Pakistan in the beginning of 2000, it made headlines in English and Arabic newspapers. Many young Baloch in the Gulf countries learnt for the first time that they had their own language and country. Some of them tried to bridge lost connections. Hoti wrote two books in Arabic to raise awareness among the Gulf Baloch about their national roots. His emphasis was Baloch are not Arabs but a separate people.
It was not the first Baloch insurgency. They have fought five wars with Pakistan. The 1970s’ insurgency is the longest after the current one. During that insurgency, some nationalists, led by guerilla commander Abdul Nabi Bangulzai, also tried to introduce a Latin script of Balochi in his guerilla camps. His intention was more nationalistic than linguistic. Arabic script was seen as a tool of the occupying Pakistani state to keep the Baloch land with Pakistan on the name of Islam. Nationalists wanted to cut all such connections.
But this phase of changing the Balochi script to Latin has been more successful than the previous ones. The Baloch are still stateless. But maybe Hoti is right: Internet is now their state.
Sajid Hussain (1981-2020) was a writer and senior journalist from Balochistan. He had a degree in Economics, International Relations and English Literature from Karachi University. He had the experience of working with Pakistani newspapers Daily Times and The News International. Sajid Hussain was also the founding editor of this online magazine.