I trudged up the trail to the top of Chamcook Mountain a couple of days ago, and was pleased to see that I could still make it to the top without too much huffing and puffing. Let me hasten to add that technically speaking, Chamcook is not really a mountain as it’s only 637 feet high, so it doesn’t exactly need super fitness and ropes and pitons to climb up. But don’t tell the locals that their beloved Chamcook is only a hill.
Once you are up there on the peak, the views are magnificent, with the wide sweep of the St Croix River on one side, and Fundy Bay on the other. On a clear day, we can see the American state of Maine in the distance. New Brunswick is a verdant state on the east coast of Canada, and is home to only around 750,000 people. Driving along, there is hardly any traffic, and the sense of vast spaces is overwhelming.
Every two years, a friend lends us his lovely holiday home in the tiny town of St Andrews, and at night we can hear the tide rising swiftly in the bay. Often, we can see deer feeding placidly on the property. Canadians are a very civil people, and I am invariably greeted with a ‘hello’ or a ‘good morning’ by total strangers. If I am waiting to cross the street, drivers will often stop their cars and signal me to go ahead.
The place is so remote and cut off that the temptation to switch off the news from the rest of the world is great. But local papers are full of the coming elections in Quebec. This French-majority province has long been mired in a debate over independence, with many Quebecois clamouring for their own nation where they can govern without interference from Anglo-Saxon Ottawa.
However, this desire to separate from Canada is now largely confined to the older generation who tend to speak only French.
Younger people are usually bi-lingual, and often move to Toronto with its cosmopolitan character and greater opportunities.
Other Canadians cynically point out that Quebec is a deficit state subsidised by Ottawa, and profess to be pleased at the prospect of the French-speaking territory going its own way.
This debate is echoed to an extent in Britain where there is a campaign being waged by First Minister Salmond for an independent Scotland.
It already has its own parliament, but there is a growing demand for statehood. Many Scots argue that if they were to retain the revenues from the North Sea oil that is being brought up from its territorial waters, they would not need any subsidies from London.
The issue is highly contentious, with Salmond being accused of playing to the populist gallery. Currently, around a third of all Scots favour independence, and the Yes Scotland movement hopes to convert enough people to win the referendum scheduled in two years.
The point here is that in two countries, the discussion about the possible separation of member provinces is being conducted in a reasonable, rational way. No troops have been sent into Quebec or Scotland to crush separatists. Both countries realise that in this day and age, it’s not the end of the world if members of a union decide to go their own way. In other words, there is life after divorce.
In Pakistan, it seems we have learned no lessons from our disastrous failure to keep East Pakistan in the federation. Hundreds of thousands died in West Pakistan’s bloody attempt to save a failed marriage. We appear to be travelling the same route now in Balochistan.
I have met many people who point out to the large subsidies the province receives from Islamabad, but this misses the point: if enough Baloch feel they no longer wish to remain in the federation, it’s time to take them seriously and begin talking about alternatives. Sending in more troops is to increase their sense of alienation.
It is entirely possible that when offered independence, many Baloch might wish to reconsider their options. But clearly, endless force is no solution. Thus far, no mainstream political party has seriously engaged with the province and its problems other than offering vague apologies and promises. Successive federal governments have simply tried to buy off local sardars in the expectation that they will be able to keep their tribes in check, and maintain the status quo.
There has been much dark talk about foreign interference in Balochistan that is fuelling the separatist flames. While this is entirely possible, outsiders can only influence events if there is fertile soil to assist their efforts. In Balochistan, there has long been a nationalist streak that has been repeatedly suppressed by state violence.
As we can see in the Canadian and British examples, civilised dialogue and debate are far better options than force. Currently, our military response has led not just to great hardship among the Baloch, but has also precipitated counter-violence against peaceful non-Baloch settlers. Clearly, this bloodshed cannot be endlessly accepted, specially at a time when our armed forces are fighting a brutal insurgency in the tribal areas against extremist militants.
The difference between the Baloch situation and the debate over separatism in Canada and Britain is that in the latter two countries, it is the political leadership that has been conducting the discussion.
Needless to say, in Pakistan it is the army that is in charge, and soldiers tend to think that force is the answer to all political problems. They need only to recall the events of 1971 to see how misplaced their faith in their guns really is.
There are fears in Islamabad that deprived of gas from Balochistan’s Sui area, Pakistan’s energy problems would be exacerbated.
But Britain depends heavily on North Sea oil, and is not using this as an excuse to deny Scots their right to secede if the majority so decides two years from now.
In this day and age, people cannot be held down by force indefinitely. Like the Quebecois and the Scots, the Baloch should be allowed to decide their own future.