Beyond trite explanations

The Balochistan cauldron remains on the boil. There may have been no spectacular or damaging incidents like the Sui strike, but of a credible effort to address the political and economic problems underlying the crisis there is still no sign. Some arrests have been made in the rape case that undoubtedly provided the spark for the present troubles; whether this will defuse some of the tension in the Sui / Bugti area till all the facts are uncovered remains unclear.

The MQM-sponsored all parties conference in Quetta was not attended by the ARD and the MMA on the plea that the sponsoring party was in the ruling coalition, although the MQM had declared early on that it would leave the coalition if a military operation was launched in Balochistan. This must have had a restraining effect on those in Islamabad who were in favour of hitting hard at recalcitrant Baloch elements.

It was a gesture that was welcomed by the nationalist parties. The conference has reiterated its opposition to any resort to force by the government, and adopted resolutions urging official attention to the sense of deprivation among the Baloch. It has also asked the government to respect the unanimous resolution of the Balochistan Assembly against the establishment of cantonments in the province -- and it should be placed on record that the military has acted with undue haste in announcing plans for a garrison in Sui.

This is exactly the kind of arrogant decision that will increase the cussedness of the already arrogant sardars. Plans to clear an area around Sui of its inhabitants will raise anxieties about the imminence of a military action despite all the sensible advice to the contrary.

The situation is serious and should no longer be seen simply in terns of the trite development-vs-sardarism equation. There is a whole history of unfair treatment of Balochistan. It should not be forgotten that it was only in 1970 that the province had an assembly of its own; nor that its first elected and representative government was summarily dismissed by Mr Z.A. Bhutto, precipitating deep-rooted resentment. It will no longer do to look for hirelings to run the provincial government and administration.

The stranglehold of the sardars and tribal leaders can be loosened only by permitting genuine political and democratic processes to find free expression. Needless to say, this cannot happen in isolation in Balochistan. There has to be an unequivocal commitment to the democratic, parliamentary and constitutional system throughout the country. The pluralism inherent in such a system has a capacity to accommodate the ethnic and social imbalances that may occur in a large, rich but under-populated province like Balochistan. Federalism too is at the core of the problem. We have a federal arrangement in place, but it has never been honestly worked.

One of its greatest virtues is that it creates a feeling of equal participation in the decision-making process among all constituents. There was a great deal of development activity in the then East Pakistan during the Ayubian period, but that did nothing to lessen the sense of political exclusion of the people of that wing, with consequences that are there before us.

If the sardars have been anxious to retain their fiefdoms and privileges - but there can be no excuse for attacks on national assets - leaders at the centre too have strained to rule Balochistan as a distant, troublesome, colonial territory to be kept under surveillance. Attitudes all around have to change, and if recent events can concentrate minds on how this can be done, they may yet have served a purpose. The federal cabinet should meet in Quetta to open across-the-board talks on all aspects of the crisis and stay there until an agreement is reached.

Iraqi poll prospects

The timing could not have been worse for a western news network to reveal that over 60 per cent of total civilian deaths in Iraq since last July have been at the hands of the occupation and Iraqi security forces. Today, as Iraqis go to the polls amid calls of boycott by Sunni clerics and fears of attacks on polling stations by the insurgents, the country stands at a standstill. A three-day public holiday has been declared and over 200,000 occupation troops and a much larger number of Iraqi security forces are patrolling the streets.

While many Shias in the south and Kurds in the north of the country are expected to turn out to vote, it is the Sunni-majority central Iraq, including capital Baghdad, where calls for boycott and fear for security are likely to keep the voter turn-out low. The majority of 120 foreign observers are based in and around Baghdad where, led by the US and Britain, a number of western countries have volunteered their embassy staff as observers of today's exercise.

A total of 275 seats are being contested in a transitional national assembly, which will be entrusted to frame a constitution to be validated by a national referendum later. The interim government will then hold parliamentary elections to form a fully constitutional government by December 15.

It would be naive to suggest that the issues and politics in Iraq under occupation relate only to the Shia-Sunni-Kurd split, as has now been made out to be the case by the Americans. At no point before the Iraq war was this anticipated. While the existence of religious and ethnic divisions cannot be ignored, the larger reality on the ground concerns wider socio-economic issues that Iraqis everywhere have to contend with on a daily basis.

According to the UN, unemployment is as high as 30-50 per cent, with 25 per cent of Iraqis wholly dependent on subsistence-level food rations and 27 per cent of children under five malnourished. Severe water, power and fuel shortages continue to plague Iraq and law and order has simply broken down. These are problems affecting all Iraqis everywhere. If the Iraqi results lack credibility because of a low turn-out in the so-called Sunni triangle, it will be due as much to the fear of being killed by the occupation forces as being targeted by the insurgents.

Attack on Jang

The attack on the offices of the Jang Group of Newspapers and Geo television in Karachi by several unidentified armed men early on Saturday morning deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. While an inquiry has been ordered by the Sindh home minister, the group's TV channel has linked the attack to the broadcast a day earlier of an interview of Israel's deputy prime minister. According to another report, a little after the attack an anonymous caller claimed responsibility and warned the management to stop airing a TV programme on marital and gender relations or face further attacks.

Whatever the motive, the incident is an open assault on the freedom of the press. No one has a right to seek to thrust his views on the media by a show of force. It is the right of the public to protest against news or programmes, but there are legal ways open to voice complaints. Those who wish to browbeat the media or limit freedom of expression in an already restrictive environment must be checked.

The country has a bitter experience at the hands of misguided extremists and zealots using brazen force and violence to impose on the rest of society their own narrow notions of politics, religion and culture. What is also disturbing is that a police mobile deployed at the newspaper's office as part of the security arrangements reportedly did nothing to stop the attackers. The government should spare no effort to trace the attackers and bring them as well as those who may be behind them to justice.

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