Obituary: The Martyred Professor

By Malik Siraj Akbar

I do no know any young Baloch of my generation who was not keen to meet Professor Saba Dashtiyari during his early school days. As a school student in Panjgur, my hometown, I first heard about Saba, who was brutally shot dead on Wednesday night in Quetta where he was among the very few remaining brave men who would still take a walk on Sariab Road in spite of serious law and order problems confronting the provincial capital. 

As young kids, we had heard charming stories about a Baloch professor who was an atheist but, ironically, taught theology and Islamic studies at the University of Balochistan. Another thing that fascinated us about him was the narrative that he spent most of his salary on the promotion of Balochi language academies and preparation of Balochi text books.

I was in my early teens when I met Professor Saba at Panjgur’s Izat Academy, a local organization that used to publish a Balochi language liberal magazine Chirag under the editorship of Karim Azad. The magazine was eventually shut down because of a chronic financial crunch.

My interactions with Saba increased in Quetta at the University of Balochistan. There were always two things one could not overlook while entering the University: the heavy presence of the Frontier Corps (FC) and Saba Dashtiyari’s table surrounded by students. Saba ran kind of a (liberal) university within the (strictly controlled) university. He was an easily approachable professor who would sit outside the canteen to share ideas with students. While getting into our classrooms, I would often see two to three students sitting with the Professor at around 10:00 am. Within two hours, when I’d walk to the same place, the circle of the students by that time would have expanded to 20 to 30.

If you walked individually, he’d excuse the group of students surrounding him and call at you “Biya day  bacha” (Come over, boy) but if you walked in a group of students, “he’d pluralize it “biye e day bachikan”  (Come over, boys).

The group of students that surrounded the Professor often comprised of progressive and liberals. One would barely make sense of the composition without squinting at the books they carried in their hands. These students held books written by free thinkers like Bertrand Russell and others held some Russian fictions by Leo Tolstoy or Maxim Gorky. There were the ones who’d be holding Syed Sibth-e-Hassan’s work or that of Dr. Mubarak Ali.

After seeing these books, one would sit down to listen to the contents of the discussion taking place on this exceptional circle. Discussions headed by Saba were far more liberal and enlightening than what we could learn from our classrooms.  The participants of the discussions would talk on a variety of topics ranging from politics, religion, revolutions, nationalism to taboos  like sex and homosexuality. Students often wondered why rest of the professors at the university were not as liberal and easily approachable as Saba. 

The great Professor’s humbleness dated back to his family background. He came from a low-income family of Karachi which had actually migrated from Dasthiyar area of Iranian Balochistan. Thus, he alluded to his ancestral town throughout his life with his last name “Dashtiyari” (which meant someone who came from Dashtiyar). 

Saba was born in 1953 in Karachi and attained his basic education in the slums. He obtained a Masters degree in Philosophy and Islamic Studies from the Karachi University. In 1980s, he began to teach at the University of Balochistan. His love for different languages took him to the Iranian cultural center where he spent four years to learn Persian and then learned Arabic from the Egyptian Radio.  

Very few people took the responsibility of promoting Balochi language and culture with such a great personal and professional commitment as Professor Dashtiyari did. 

Although, he silently remained involved in teaching and promoting the language for around two years, he subsequently realized he was not sufficiently contributing to the Baloch movement. Thus, he walked outside the University and joined as an activist. During the last three years, Saba was seen in the forefront of the movement demanding the release of thousands of missing Baloch persons. He used to sit at different hunger strike camps to sympathize with the families of the missing persons and address various seminars. 

In one such seminar, a female journalist interrupted Saba’s speech and said she would not let him speak on Balochistan. The lady’s interruption did not discourage or humiliate the Baloch professor who said in front of an august gathering that he would exercise his right to freedom of expression. Freedom in its all forms meant a life to him. 

Two days before coming to the US, Saba and I spent around five hours together in Quetta. After he transported two boxes of books to a Karachi-based academy, we sat along with some other friends in Quetta’s Pishin Stop at a fast food restaurant to discuss the situation in Balochistan. 

I inquired about the remarkable transformation in his personality and  the causes that forced him to become an activist. In response, he sounded very frustrated with the state of affairs in Balochistan and did not mince words. 

“Pakistan is a colonial state,” he said, “It is trying to eliminate the Baloch people and their culture. As professionals, we have to understand it’s our responsibility to come forward to assure our people that they are not alone.” 

He believed that the Balochs should establish parallel educational institutions to counter the official propaganda and efforts to assimilate the Baloch into an alien culture. He was perturbed over the lack of official encouragement for the Balochi language and emphasized on the need for societal efforts to preserve the Baloch identity. 

A practical man, he had established a prestigious Balochi reference center which was named after Syed Zahoor Shah Hashimi, another respected Balcoh intellectual.

He never married; spent whole his life for the promotion of Balochi language and culture. 

Before I bid farewell to him outside his residence at the University Colony, Saba referred to my upcoming trip to the US and instructed: “Day Bacha mara odha washnaam bekan” (Oh boy, do make us proud there — in the US). 

It is utterly futile to demand an inquiry into Saba’s murder as a probe is not what is going to help. All that we need to mourn is the great loss of an extraordinary educator of Balochistan. This is no longer a secrete how the government is target killing Baloch professors, writers, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and political leaders. This is a period of unity among the people of Balochistan and the Balochs all over the world. 

Every day, I receive a number of phone calls, emails and Facebook messages advising or ‘ordering’ me to “be careful” over whatever I write. What does it actually mean to be careful? There is no way carefulness can bring an end to this traumatic cycle of systematic elimination of Baloch scholars. It is worse not to speak up against this barbaric cycle of violence. The killing of enlightened writers and professors, such as Saba, is simply a clear message to all the liberals that we should either give up or get prepared to be killed. 

I know getting killed is a heavy price for anyone of us to pay for our work but to live under oppression and injustice is like getting killed every other day. There is no justice without struggle. We all need to stand up for truth and refuse to succumb to this challenge. 

It’s no cliché: Saba was unique and irreplaceable. You will not find a man who’ll spend his salary to impart cultural awareness and secular education at a time when the State of Pakistan is spending billions of rupees with the assistance of its Saudi cronies to radicalize the Baloch society by constructing more and more religious schools to counter the liberal nationalist movement.