Pacifying the Baloch

Weekly Bang-e-Sahar Karachi Satuarday, August 2—–August 2008
By I.A. Rehman
THE relative quiet with which Balochistan’s militant nationalists had been watching political developments in the country has been broken by Brahmdakh Bugti’s strident call for a sovereign Balochistan.Before rushing to issue any edict against the angry Baloch one will serve Pakistan well by pondering his words and the context.The late Akbar Bugti’s grandson is not the first Baloch politician to defend armed action against the Pakistan state, but he has spoken at a time when the people of Balochistan have become more receptive to his ideas. The Baloch like to tell their tale of misery in a dirge. Its present version has features that should convince Islamabad of the urgency of addressing Balochistan’s alienation.The traditional lament used to begin with the way British Balochistan’s vote to join Pakistan was secured and the pledges to Kalat broken. Then came violations of the right to provincial autonomy, the imposition of One Unit, dismissal of its elected governments, detention of its popular leaders, military operations, killing of sardars, and expropriation of the province’s natural resources. Each federal government provided grist to the lament writer’s mill.The Musharraf regime outdid its predecessors. It not only added Gwadar, new cantonment plans, Akbar Bugti’s killing and disappearances to Balochistan’s festering sores, it also dared the nationalists to climb the mountains and put a seal on its implacability by dismissing the recommendations of the Senate committee, which meant Balochistan was not entitled to a friendly counsel even.Lately, the dissidents in Balochistan have evolved a new idiom to describe the seizure and control of their gold (from Saindak) and gas. The various parts of Pakistan, and some foreign parties too, are benefiting from Balochistan’s wealth, so goes the lament, while its own population is left to wallow in poverty, disease and ignorance. This version of the Balochistan lament has a more direct appeal to the ordinary citizen than the grievances in the earlier versions.The main reason is evidence of Balochistan’s exploitation that is easily visible and is tangible, such as the long lines of vehicles at CNG filling stations in Quetta as there is not enough gas for the territory that produces it. Large segments of the road called the RCD Highway (Quetta to Karachi) disappeared in a flood two years ago. Everybody travelling on the dusty and stony track is reminded that Balochistan cannot have carpeted roads such as other provinces have.Word is out that around 75 per cent of the relief goods provided by foreign donors did not reach the flood-affected people. The plight of thousands of internally displaced persons cannot be concealed from the local youth who can see emaciated people camping in the open with nobody responsible for providing them with food and medicines or tents even. A Baloch youth might not have felt so strongly about constitutional matters as he does about the disappearance of a cousin.The transformation of impersonal grievances into personal complaints has radicalised a larger proportion of the province’s youth population than before. They have also found new symbols of unity. The killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti made him a much greater hero than he was in life. Some of the most common roadside slogans hail the late Ballach Marri and Brahmdakh Bugti, indicating their adoption as heroes across political divides.Nobody is therefore surprised to find that the traditional parties and their moderate leaders have lost their audiences. Most observers agree that the old formulas for greater autonomy and the abolition of the concurrent list can no longer overcome Balochistan’s alienation. Many greyheads assert that the phase of placating Balochistan through negotiations is over.However, the way a new provincial cabinet was cobbled together did not fail to offer comfort to the federal establishment that the politics of patronage had not ended and that it was still possible to recruit people with some electoral following who were prepared to support the federal connection. The installation of a coalition government in Islamabad and the chorus of democratic rhetoric from the citadels of power revived hopes of reconciliation in the moderate political parties. Many of them defined a set of preconditions for negotiations with the centre. These included:Recovery of all missing persons; release of all political detainees and withdrawal of cases against political activists; return of IDPs to their homes; replacement of the Frontier Constabulary with the traditional Levies; cessation of the handing over of Baloch people to Iran; and end to military operations and land-grab designs.Once these demands were met talks could begin on substantial issues, such as review of legislative lists and emergency provisions of the constitution, revision of royalty rates for gas, Balochistan’s say in federal policies and its right to seek foreign investment and trading partners, and a new NFC award.Unfortunately, hopes of an Islamabad-Quetta accord started waning as the new federal government revealed its capacity for wobbling. Indications that the pre-election establishment was still calling the shots have caused a setback to the pro-federation elements in Balochistan. Let there be no doubt that Balochistan can remain a willing constituent of the federation only if a genuinely democratic order endures both at the centre and in the provinces. The more Islamabad lunges in favour of praetorian rule the faster will be Balochistan’s drift away from the federation. The onus of keeping Balochistan in the federation is not on Brahmdakh Bugti, it is on Islamabad, that is if it believes in a federal Pakistan at all.It may still be possible to win over the minds and hearts of the Baloch by meeting the preconditions for negotiations mentioned above and encouraging a discourse on the imperatives of a durable federation. Keeping the Waseem Sajjad committee’s recommendations secret has been counter-productive. Let all relevant reports and recommendations be made public. The task of drawing up a comprehensive package on provincial autonomy may be assigned to a special committee comprising representatives of the centre and all the four provinces. This committee will succeed only if the powers that be are prepared to guarantee Balochistan (and other provinces, for that matter) a place in the federation compatible with its right to dignity, justice and self-governance.—Dawn

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