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Hope for Balochistan?

June 06, 2013

WILL Nawaz Sharif’s laudable decision to choose for Balochistan’s chief ministership a Baloch from outside his party revive hope for tranquillity, good governance and progress in that much misunderstood and persistently wronged federating unit?

To a considerable extent, Pakistan’s future will depend on what answer we get to this question.

The PML-N chief has opted for the best possible way, in the given situation, to restore the Baloch people’s confidence in realising their democratic rights through constitutional means. The National Party’s commitment to the cause of Baloch nationalists is well known.

Also known is Dr Abdul Malik Baloch’s skill in the art of the possible. During the discussion on the proposals for the 18th Amendment, he did not curtail his people’s demands but also showed flexibility in settling for less. He should be in a better position than the other coalition partners to influence the Baloch elements that have lost faith in parliamentary democracy.

One would have been happier if Sardar Akhtar Mengal had been a party to the consensus-making process. Even now it should be possible for him to put his personal/party unhappiness aside and help a broad-based Baloch effort at securing the community’s advancement.

Mian Nawaz Sharif’s decision is not only in favour of the National Party, it is also in the interests of his party’s Balochistan wing; the latter will not be responsible for the trials the new provincial government will doubtless face. More than anything else it is an offer of accommodation to the entire people of Balochistan. If this view is accepted by all coalition partners they may succeed in burying the tradition of factious and divisive politics in their land.

The difficult nature of Dr Malik’s task can hardly be exaggerated. He will be able to make a good start only by ensuring that his cabinet functions as a team united in the pursuit of shared objectives. This will need the fullest possible understanding not only among Baloch representatives, regardless of their inter party differences, but also with the Pakhtun community. Baloch-Pakhtun relations have been under strain for several decades and they need to be repaired on the basis of justice and equity. Things should start improving if the new government can remove the impression that a Baloch-dominated assembly cannot do justice to the Pakhtun belt in the areas of services, economic opportunities and social welfare entitlements. It is good that the Balochistan Pakhtuns have reposed trust in a strong party of their own.

The latest election has been much better than the preceding one. The assembly elected in 2008 suffered from a lack of legitimacy because the nationalist parties and some other groups had boycotted the contest. While the new assembly will be free of that stigma, it will have to prove by its deeds that despite the absence of proper polling and low turnout in Baloch territory, it has the capacity to represent the entire population.

Perhaps Dr Malik’s most challenging task will be to give Balochistan a functional and efficient government, something it has never had except for a couple of brief interludes in a long history of anti-people regimes.

Balochistan can no longer afford a government that behaves like the shared mistress of the sardars and clerics. An open, transparent and incorruptible administration, one that is both responsible and accessible to citizens, alone will enable Balochistan to face the challenges of the age.

The elections have not altered the fact that without a resolution of the crisis caused by involuntary disappearances, peace and order cannot be established in Balochistan. The new provincial government will not be able to make much headway in this direction unless it is helped by the federal government in enjoying as much autonomy as is allowed to other federating units, especially in the management of security-related matters. If Dr Malik’s cabinet is ineffective in stopping within a reasonable time the dumping of dead bodies of ‘missing’ persons and fresh additions to their list, it will lose not only its high moral ground but also perhaps any justification for clinging to power.

It may be necessary to have both short-term and long-range strategies for dealing with the issue of disappearances. The immediate task must be to compel the law-enforcing agencies to enforce the law, expediting the payment of compensation and subsistence allowances to the victims’ families and making due efforts at recovering the disappeared. The home ministry may be made to maintain a complete and up-to-date record of all cases of disappearance.

With reference to the dumping of dead bodies, the new government must make judicial inquiry by a sessions judge in each case mandatory. If it is found that such probes cannot be expeditiously held due to a shortage of judicial officers, the appointment of a couple of sessions judges to exclusively decide cases of extra-legal killings and the recovery of disappeared persons as mutilated corpses will be a sound investment.

The long-term strategy will require a thorough revamping of the law and order cover. It will be essential to develop a police force capable of protecting the life and liberty of all citizens and which will be accountable to the provincial authority. If elements from outside the province have security concerns they should be helped to begin trusting the provincially controlled personnel. The system of Levies can be reformed by transforming them into a community police.

Dr Malik is likely to find the challenges confronting him daunting and the time for experimentation limited. Rushing to apply half-baked remedies to Balochistan’s chronic ills could be as dangerous as pushing matters under the carpet. Ways will have to be found for launching initiatives without the loss of time but not without due deliberation. One thing must be clear in everybody’s mind: Balochistan may not get another chance for the politics of reconciliation like the present one.