FOR a few days last week, Babu, our old cook, has been cooking on charcoal. Not because we acquired a sudden yearning for barbecued food, but because there was no gas.

Now I have no problem with charcoal cooking because food cooked at lower temperatures generally has better flavour. However, I do draw the line at cold showers in winter just because the geyser isn’t working.

And the reason it wasn’t working is that a bunch of trouble-makers in Balochistan had blown up the gas pipeline, apart from causing extensive damage to the pumping installations in Sui. But instead of cracking down and restoring the rule of law in the area, it is the state that is bending over backwards in its pathetic attempts to appease these so-called nationalists.

Egging them on are some tribal sardars who, in any normal country, would face charges of incitement to violence against the state. These people have never done a stroke of work in their lives and have enjoyed a pampered existence, thanks to the public exchequer. These tribal chieftains are also trying to block development in Gwadar because it does not benefit them. And yet they give us lectures on exploitation.

If the people of Balochistan have any grievances about the rightful revenues they should be getting from Sui gas and other natural resources, there is the National Finance Commission they can take their case to. There are several federal ministers from Balochistan who can argue for a better deal. Currently, the federal government underwrites the Balochistan budget to the extent of 94 per cent, while the province provides only six per cent of revenues. If they want a better deal, then they have to make out a rational case. But to allow armed tribesmen to hold the country hostage is an admission of the failure of the state.

The pretext the Balochistan Liberation Army’ is using for its current assault against national assets is the alleged rape of a doctor in the Sui gas facilities. If such an incident did take place, it goes without saying that the rapist must be arrested and punished under the law of the land. But if armed gangs are allowed to create mayhem and hold a gun to the country’s head each time a woman is raped, we had all better learn to cook on charcoal.

During the recent disruption in gas supplies, the economy suffered a loss of literally billions. And what did our politicians do? Meekly suggest that the government should negotiate with those responsible for the attacks. Currently, night trains to Quetta have been halted as they are being attacked by the BLA. I suppose we have to hold further talks with the nationalists to persuade them to desist.

Elsewhere, the army is engaged in fighting and talking with rebels in Wana to persuade them to please stop acting against the interests of the state. The tribesmen there have been openly aiding the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements sheltering in their midst, and helping them attack Afghan targets across the border.

Apart from the hundreds of fatalities suffered by our troops (some estimates put them as high as 800), disturbing rumours are circulating about the refusal of air force pilots to bomb tribal positions. If this is true, this is further evidence of how soft the state has become.

Another area where our troops have been called out is in Gilgit where a sectarian bloodbath is threatened. Wherever we turn, there seems to be an armed insurrection against the state. Just as well we have been blessed with such a huge army, even though thousands of soldiers have been engaged in checking electricity metres, while their officers run innumerable industries and government departments.

What is clear from all these incidents is that the state has lost all credibility, respect and fear among the bulk of its citizens. In most countries, the state has a monopoly on armed might and has the legitimacy to use it in case of organized resistance and insurrection. Here, over the years, people have seen successive governments back down or cut deals to allow criminals and armed rebels off the hook.

This continuous policy of appeasement has encouraged every kind of crackpot with a real or imaginary grievance to pick up a Kalashnikov. He is safe in the knowledge that in all probability, nothing will happen to him. And he is right. Leaders of sectarian gangs with endless blood on their hands are arrested one day and released the next.

We have now reached the stage where armed tribals can rain rockets on gas pipelines and other installations for years, and no action is taken against them. Not only is the state spineless in its response, but there is a chorus from virtually the entire political spectrum urging it to continue its policy of supreme inaction.

Normally, I would be the last person to urge violence in any situation. I think the army action in Balochistan in the early seventies was inexcusable because it was precipitated by Bhutto’s needless dismissal of the elected provincial government.

But because army action was wrong then does not mean it would be wrong now. Currently, there is no political cause for the BLA’s attacks against the state. If they have economic grievances, then there are legal, constitutional avenues open to the Balochistan government to address any imbalance. But to bring the economy to a grinding halt on a whim is unacceptable in any civilized country.

I have always maintained that the existence of the tribal, sardari system in this day and age is an anachronism that needs to be ended. What is happening in Wana and the Bugti areas is directly linked to the absence of one set of laws for the whole country. Much of the guns and drugs flowing across the country can be traced to this aberration.

If the rule of law is ever to be enforced in Pakistan “ and I have serious doubts if it can be done now “ then the whole concept of Tribal Areas has to be ended. Created by the British over a century ago to act as a buffer between Afghanistan and British India, the old strategic idea has lost all relevance and utility.

Again, I am no advocate of force to settle problems. But when a state becomes a bystander as national assets are being wantonly destroyed by private militias encouraged by tribal elders, then surely they must be stopped. If no action is taken, what is to stop others from blowing up electricity pylons in Punjab, for instance?

I am aware that many readers will be critical of these views. But I am convinced that until the state can assert its authority, we will see many more of such incidents in the very near future.

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