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Undermining a cause: Punjabi labourers killed

August 08, 2013

THE attack, as many before it, was intended to send a stark message to the enemy, but the killing of Punjabi migrant labourers in Bolan district, Balochistan, is the very ugliest kind of warfare and deeply undermines the Baloch cause. Where once so-called Punjabi settlers were actively targeted in the insurgency-hit parts of Balochistan, now it seems the focus is migrant Punjabi labour that travels to Balochistan in search of the most meagre of incomes and the hardest imaginable manual labour. The state’s response has been to curtail the movement of inter-provincial bus services after dusk and before sunset and presumably to beef up the security presence along high-risk routes during the Eid-related rush.

In truth, however, ad hoc, after-the-event measures cannot really prevent a repeat. The Machh area in which Tuesday’s attack took place is in a separatist-infested belt and the nearby mountains provide a relatively secure sanctuary for the Baloch militants. Even if a major security forces operation were to be launched — and that possibility is itself linked to serious political considerations — the results would be spotty and fleeting at best. The answer, as ever, remains two-fold. One, the moderate Baloch leadership should break out of the suffocating climate of fear and paralysis they have found themselves in and speak more plainly to Baloch society about the damage the separatists are inflicting on legitimate Baloch grievances. Two, the federal and Balochistan governments will need to simultaneously coax the separatists to the negotiating table while cajoling the security establishment to relent in its hard-line approach to the province.

Neither task is easy, to put it mildly. But seeing the shroud-covered bodies of the dead from the Machh attack, it is fiercely evident that the moral onus is on the Baloch political leadership to push back against such ugly crimes. Because the Baloch people have been hard done by by the Pakistani state and understand exclusion and victimhood better than most, it is doubly despairing to see the Baloch cause hijacked by savage elements who speak in the name of all Baloch, but in fact end up hurting the vast majority of them through their violence. The men who were picked out and killed because of their ethnic origin on Tuesday were almost surely as let down by the Pakistani state as the average impoverished and disempowered Baloch has been. The Balochistan government must do more than just issue a routine condemnation of Tuesday’s attack. The killers should be taken on directly and immediately.