The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
Far away from Quetta, or Khuzdar or Naushki, it is often impossible to gauge the sentiments and feelings that swirl with the dusts of Balochistan.
But it is obvious that the ill-judged comments of the adviser on interior, Rehman Malik, while winding up a debate in the Senate on Balochistan, have created a storm that makes the sands fly still more fiercely. The remarks have, of course, added to the tensions that spur on the nationalist struggle in Balochistan, and made many people within the country’s largest province still more determined to break away from what they see as the oppressive hold of Pakistan.
Mr Malik could not have done a greater service to the nationalist cause had he been hired by one of the groups that has waged a struggle for autonomy in the province for decades.
Let us assume, just for a few hypothetical moments, that what Mr Malik alleged was strictly accurate: that the struggle in Balochistan is supported by India and Afghanistan and even by Russia – although there is reason to believe Russian involvement on a large scale ended by the 1990s, although till then nationalist forces had links with the former Soviets. The fact is that these nations have taken advantage of the strife that exists within the province and used it to serve their own ends. This after all is a tactic that should not be entirely unfamiliar to Pakistan; and since it has direct experience of such involvement it should also realize that the most effective way to tackle it is to address the factors that create internal dissent.
In Balochistan, these have been identified time and time again. They revolve around perceptions of grotesque injustice perpetuated by a Punjab-dominated federation. Whether or not their belief is accurate, the people of Balochistan believe their resources have been used to benefit other provinces – notably Punjab – rather than the people of Balochistan. One website after another run by Baloch nationalist groups – accessible only through proxy servers because of the ill-advised blockage of these sites by PTCL – speaks of people cooking on wood fires in Baloch villages while pipelines take gas out of the province to other places. The underdevelopment of Balochistan and the fact that figures that depict the state of education, health and welfare within it are significantly worse than anywhere else in the country lends credence to these concerns.
What is ignored in official comments attacking the, rather immature statements made by Brahamdagh Bugti, is that Baloch nationalism is not restricted to a few hired ‘agents’. It exists everywhere in the province – amongst housewives, schoolgirls and professionals with no direct link to any nationalist group. Children are brought up by mothers on stories on nationalist heroes. And in the unusual social context of Balochistan, nationalism is tied in with the Sardars – who otherwise are sometimes responsible for unchecked oppression and cruelty to their own people.
The principal point here is that the prime focus of Islamabad should be to draw Balochistan back into the mainstream of the country, before it is too late to do so. This would serve ‘security’ interests far more effectively than diatribes which attack leaders seen by many a Baloch as heroes. The murder of three of them earlier this month only adds to their status as martyrs. It also seems odd that the government seems to be pulling in different directions on the issue of Balochistan.
President Zardari has made what we can assume to be a genuine attempt to initiate a reconciliation process. Others appear to be just as determined to wreck it. Questioning Baloch accounts of thousands being missing or women being tortured in detention centres at this point are blatantly unwise. The statements only add to the mistrust and hatred for central authority in Balochistan.
There is another reason too why it is unwise to totally alienate the people of Balochistan at this point. The fact is that today, the main enemy of Pakistan are the militants who threaten to Talibanize the whole of the country. Most citizens oppose them, wholeheartedly and with passion. Perhaps a few of the most blind believe they can bring positive change, The Baloch groups still include many who have no sympathies with religion in the form it is put forward by the Taliban. Forces such as the Baloch Students Organization (BSO) still speak of secularism and a just social order. For these reasons, these forces must not be crushed. Doing so would only open up more space for the militants to move into. This is indeed what happened when former president Musharraf tried to push aside mainstream parties. By doing so he succeeded in strengthening the Taliban. The same mistakes must not be repeated, particularly at a time when the militants are reported already to have their eyes on Quetta. This territory must not be left to them.
Are there then any solutions to the issues we face in Balochistan? Baloch leaders, in the last few weeks since the murder of three nationalist figures in Turbat have made it clearer than ever that they seek autonomy; some suggest the parameters of this must go beyond what has been laid out in the 1973 Constitution. Sadly, some manifestations of nationalism in Balochistan have taken the form of violence against people from other provinces. Such racism is unacceptable. It has had a tragic impact on families. But perhaps it is also inevitable given the situation that has been created in Balochistan largely as a result of the ill-advised policies pursued since the 1950s. Today, we must focus on ways to undo the effects of these and to persuade Balochistan that it may still be worth-staying within the federation. Whether accurately or not, nationalist groups argue that with a sparse population of just over ten million people, abundant natural resources that could include oil and a coastline, an entirely independent future is possible.
They must be persuaded to change their minds. For this to happen, the centre – and other provinces – must demonstrate a wisdom and maturity that has so far been lacking. There is a need for magnanimity rather than hostility. The primary focus must be to win back the trust of the Baloch people by addressing their concerns and drawing them back into the process of determining their own destiny. Attacks such as those we have seen recently will only add to the disgruntlement and growing distance that already exists between Balochistan and the rest of the country, making it even more arduous to achieve the task of persuading Balochistan to re-enter the federation of Pakistan as a willing unit ready to play a full part in a united future.