The decision reportedly taken by the Centre to start a Baloch radio service on All India Radio (AIR) has spooked the public service broadcaster.
After a flurry of unsourced tweets that followed the announcement, officials from AIR denied the announcement. Meanwhile there were reports that Pakistan’s regulatory authority, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), had banned Indian channels aired on DTH services.
The congratulatory tweets and counter-action from Pakistan have left siblings Indra Kumar, Dolly Arora and Subash highly amused but also a tad bewildered. Since 2003, the trio from Quetta in Balochistan have been broadcasting news and a mix of songs from 8.30 to 9.30 pm, in Balochi on the External Services Division (ESD) of All India Radio.
“We have been doing this for 13 years,” says Indra Kumar. Baloch services on the national broadcaster date back to 1974 and are remembered for the influence wielded by Ghulam Mohammad Lalzad, a native of Nimroz in Afghanistan, who served in the division for two decades. A typical news bulletin read out by the siblings, each appointed as translator-cum-announcer, begins with ‘Haal’, or news, followed by ‘Tabasra’ —topic for discussion — and old songs from Balochistan. The script for the news is translated into Baloch from English by the brothers and the sister who are fluent in Urdu, English part from their mother tongue.
“We broadcast Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on August 15 where he pledged support to the Baloch people. That was great because too many people are being persecuted back home and his address has led to a renewed interest in the language,” says Mr. Kumar.
Demolition fallout Mr Kumar and his siblings fled Dera Bugta in Quetta, where they were born after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. “It had become difficult for us to live [there] though it was the only home we knew ,” says Mr Kumar.
They reached India in 1993 and it took another five years for them to get Indian citizenship.
It was around then that the ESD was looking for announcers and translators, with some its best known anchors having left the service. When the services of the unit’s staff were regularised, foreign nationals were excluded. The trio came to the rescue of the division in 2003. However, they continue to be hired on a casual basis with their contracts renewed once in six months.
While the programmes are available not only in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan, Iran and the Gulf countries, the presenters have no way to gauge the response or get feedback. “Earlier, we used to get letters of request and praise. Now they have stopped,” says Mr Kumar.
His brother Subhash reminisces about the land they left behind. “Though we were Hindus, we were held in high regard and respected in Dera Bugti. But after the Masjid fell, we became more and more isolated and worried for our safety” he recalls. Maria a refugee from Afghanistan, joined the three in 2009.
The ESD requires a functional staff of 110 for all the 27 languages but makes do with 18. The rest are casual hires. The Division has been broadcasting news and other programmes in Balochi along with 27 other languages and is now constrained by budget to innovate and stay relevant.
Ten years ago, there was apprehension about the future of the ESD; doubts were aired about the relevance of the division, a brainchild of the British. But with Mr Modi making clear his support for the people of Balochistan, the translators in the Baloch services of AIR will be hoping that their activities will get some measure of importance it deserves.