The problem with Balochistan

Published: July 22, 2010
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Tyres set on fire during a protest by Balochistan National Party (BNP) activists against the killing of political leader Habib Jalib.

If I endeavor to draw a parallel between East Pakistan and Balochistan I’m sure it would be a well-founded one. The way the central government has continued to deny Balochis their rights it’s not too difficult to see how similar the situation is to that of East Pakistan. While all disturbances and revolts are attributed to ‘foreign’ hands’, the centre never ventures to ponder on what makes Balochistan a hotbed for such anarchy.

A very fleeting look instantly reveals that it has been an acute state of injustice, provincial inequality and continuous military repression that has pushed Pakistan’s largest province to the brink of rebellion. Extenstive military establishments throughout the region only affirm the notion that Federation has been using force and coercion rather than incentive and reform to contain local agitation.

The Balochistan issue dates back exactly to the days of Pakistan’s indepedence. For long, the ‘Iron Curtain’ extended by Islamabad over the region prevented the availability of first-hand narratives of the Balochis and their side of the story. All that the masses were ever told by the state machinery was that there was some turmoil in the province and that army had to intervene, times and again, to ‘save’ the people there. However, with an increasing surge of independent media channels, there is now at least an understanding of the fact that something unusual is up with Balochistan. Although such media outlets are still non-existent in Balochistan itself, where an attempt to establish a channel or newspaper often leads to arrest or alleged abduction by intelligence agencies, the Balochis’ plight is slowly being brought forth in limited media circles. And that is indeed a welcome sign.

A brief history of the issue

On August 12, 1947, New York Times published the following piece of news: “An announcement from New Delhi said that Kalat, Moslem State in Baluchistan, had reached an agreement with Pakistan for free flow of communications and commerce, and would negotiate for decisions on defense, external affairs and communications. Under the agreement, Pakistan recognizes Kalat as an independent sovereign state with a status different from that of Indian States.”

So was the state of affairs at the time of Pakistan’s independence. However, not too later, Khan of Kalat was asked to formally accede to Pakistan. Khan retaliated, stating that his state had been granted autonomy under the agreement. A Parliament of the local tribal heads and chieftains unanimously resounded the same sentiment. However, Mr. Jinnah, formerly Khan’s legal aide, was not to hear a ‘no’ and after having pressurized the Khan to sign the Instrument of Accession(as Khan noted later in his autobiography), army took control of the province, jailing him and dismembering his cabinet. Khan’s brother took to mountains, refusing to accept the decision and choosing to retaliate the army’s invastion. That marked the first armed retaliation against the central government.

Since the accession, four more popular armed uprisings have occured in the province, most of them dealt with by army and crushed cruelly. Despite the fact that Balochistan opted for autonomy at the time of independence, the Balochis today ask for their rights more so than the separation from Pakistan. And they would certainly have agreed to adopt the constitutional way had it yielded any results in the past. However, all parliamentary efforts from their end have proved futile and they remain highly disenchanted by the constitutional methods.

Provincial Inequality

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province comprising approximately 43 per cent of the total land area and supporting a population of about 7 million people. It is rich in a number of valuable minerals including vast copper and natural gas deposits. However, the sad fact is that while the entire country benefits from these resources, Balochis themselves are handed a meagre royalty for them and nothing else. A case study shall expound my point. Natural gas deposits were discovered in Balochistan in 1953. Household and commercial gas was supplied to Punjab from this source since as far back as 1964. But royalties were offered to Quetta only in 1980(the amount of this paid royalty is constant ever since) and it was connected with a gas supply in 1986. And today, as even Sindh’s remote areas enjoy the facility, out of Balochistan’s 26 districts, only 4 are supplied with gas.

It is this provincial inequality that has fiercely triggered the sense of deprivation among Balochi masses. Even the provincial governments have been severely inhibited in their efforts to improve conditions because of the fact that Islamabad takes direct decisions over policies governing the province.

In the past, a number of nationalist leaders have been elected to the parliament. Nawab Akbar Bugti had served both as the Governor and the Chief Minister of the province. Ataullah Mengal and Akhtar Mengal also lead the provincial government in the capacity of being Chief Ministers. Nonetheless, all these unromantic partenerships with the center ended abruptly with the center wielding it’s power by disregarding these nationalist office-holders and their reservations. To cite an instance, Nawab Akbar Bugto resigned after his disagreements with the Federal Government at the latter’s decision to launch a military operation in Balochistan. Similarly, the nuclear experiments at Chaghai were carried out without any consultation with the Chief Minister or the provincial cabinet. The people in the region continue to suffer severe health problems because of the after-effects of those experiments with no compensation from the Government of Pakistan.

These experiments have hugely disenchanted the local masses of the significance of constitutional furthering of their plights. An increasing number of them, especially the youth, view military response as the only viable solution. However, the mainstream nationalist leaders are still ready to engage in dialogue only if they’re assured that the terms agreed upon at the occasion of accession shall be honored. These include much more provincial autonomy and provincial say in regional affairs.

Terrorism and Counter-terrorism – who’s who and what’s what

The Army has become an integral part of the Balochistan equation since the very start. It has gradually moved from a partial, distant control of the region to a more organized control, replacing the levies forces and bringing a very large part under it’s reign. In local culture, it has become synonymous with extra-judicial abductions, killings and missing persons.

According to UN reports, about 8000 Balochis have gone missing since 2005. And that’s a very small part of the larger picture. Army has been increasingly deployed by the center to extend a firm grip and bring the local dissidents into the fold of central command. Naturally, this has resulted in a very hostile reaction from Balochis who view army garrisons as a sign of enroachment on their nationalism. To them, all army activities in the region are a version of state terrorism.

Federation, on the other hand, is extremely sensitive towards Baloch national sentiments and it’s definition of terrorism terms everyone with a separatist agenda as a terrorist. Such sweeping generalizations have lead to the arrests and abductions of thousands, the whereabouts of many of which stay unknown after years. Center is of the opinion that if it fails to address these anti-national and separatist outbursts, it’s grip on the province will weaken.

When talking of terrorism in Balochistan, Balochistan Liberation Army is not a name to be missed. BLA has been increasingly active in recent years. And increasingly violent too, allegedly killing scores of Punjabis or anyone having the slightest to do with Punjab.

According to the political activists in the region, BLA enjoys mass support and the sole reason this support is extended is because they fight. BLA is said to comprise educated, young Balochis, many of them engineers, doctors, lawyers, barristers and other highly qualified personnel. Evidently, the democratic franchise has so weakened in the province that people consider an armed struggle as the only viable solution. Needless to state this has put the lives of thousands of immigrants in Balochistan in jeopardy.

Plight of the Baloch

Balochis have a set of traditions and norms that strike one as unique at the very first look. Like Pashtuns, they are not a creed easily diminished or invaded. Likewise, they have never given up their struggle for an honorable existence. Ever since their forced accession, they have been denied basic rights. The region lacks health, educational and land reforms and the basic infrastructure is very underdeveloped. To top it, they have been in an unnamed subjugation to the army.

An average Balochi today asks for just one thing: basic rights. They want federal government to expend the money that’s earned through their resources in the same region. They want schools, hospitals and infrastructure development. Above everything else, they want the Center to grant provincial autonomy and stop meddling with local politics. Unlike most of Pakistan’s other region, Balochistan is still safe from the plague of extremism. And contrary to the popular media-made perceptions, Balochis are an enlightened lot. The nationalist leaders, including Khan of Kalat and Ataullah Mengal, agree upon the establishment of a modern, secular democracy should Balochistan be awarded provincial autonomy. This is also the view of an average Balochi today who has put aside his tribal prejudice to purse this common cause.

At the start of this article, I strove to establish a parallel between 1971’s East Pakistan and today’s Balochistan. And I still hold that the two have striking resemblances. Back in 1971, the federal Government kept playing blind to the horrendous discrimination committed towards East Pakistan. And when the eventual backlash started, no self-chastenings would work. If India or other ‘foreign’ hands were able to exploit the situation, it was because the situation was volatile enough already. Bengalis had been neglected for decades and when the army started its saga of atrocities against them, their choice became obvious – separation. Balochistan today seems to move towards a similar destiny. However, with the fragmented resistance put up by Baluchis, it’s a long way before they can claim power enough for a successful armed struggle.

Meanwhile, the centre and the Army has had time enough to ponder over their utterly flawed policies, policies which have only worsened the situation over the last 63 years and solved nothing. President Zardari’s government did declare a Balochistan package but like all it’s past counterparts, it’s been mere words and no actions thus far. These policies and the proposed reforms must be implemented without any delay and before the breaking point is reached, we must find a common ground where both Federation and Balochistan can guard it’s interests without fringing upon each other’s rights. If this is not done, and the chances seem thin with the Federation’s total lack of interest in addressing the Balochis’ plight, I fear that we may have to face another 1971.

salman.latif

Salman Latif

A blogger who blogs at salmanlatif.wordpress.com/ and tweets @salmanlateef

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