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Talk to the Baloch now

February 13, 2014

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THE ongoing attempts to have a deal with the militants who have been causing explosions all over the country are in a sharp contrast with the policy of ignoring the threat of an implosion in Balochistan that is getting more and more serious every day.

An indication of the government’s seriousness about resolving the Balochistan crisis will soon be available when the participants of the long march against enforced disappearance reach Islamabad. The federal authorities will do no good to the marchers or themselves if they treat them with the indifference so far displayed. Already reports of some official efforts to restrict the media coverage of the event have created a bad impression. It is necessary to demonstrate that these officials had no mandate from any government.

These courageous seekers of justice have already been on the road for 110 days — the longest and probably the only real protest march in Pakistan’s history. The boils on their swollen feet offer a measure of the hurt caused to them by the involuntary disappearance of their dear ones. They are convinced that state employees have been the agents of their incredible suffering and the failure of the state to redress their grievances has cut deeper into their hearts than even the disappearance of a brother or a son.

Ever since the people and the authorities became aware of disappearances a decade ago the issue has been causing increased and more widespread pain and disaffection. The Baloch believe that the relief they have received from the courts has been grossly inadequate. The realisation that their tormentors can even defy the country’s apex court has only deepened their feeling of alienation from the state.

Many developments have added to the Baloch grievances. The recommendations of the three-man judicial commission of 2010 have remained largely unimplemented; no law has been made to regularise and regulate the work of intelligence agencies, nor have they been put on a shorter leash.

A variety of factors reduced the effectiveness of the committee headed by retired justice Javaid Iqbal and now the government is having difficulty in finding a suitable person to head a probe body. Those approached are perhaps wary of accepting an assignment that has been made totally unrewarding by the government’s incapacity to call the much-pampered security forces to account.

The view that the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance is going to legitimise disappearances and unlawful detention could not but increase the Baloch’s apprehensions. And the discovery of mass graves in Khuzdar — and everybody knows about the mafia in power there — has in a way substantiated the Baloch charges against the establishment.

The government must realise that any people aggrieved to the extent the Baloch have been can be palmed off with promises of doing better the next time only for a short period. The people of Balochistan reached the end of their patience long ago. The arrival of the long marchers in Islamabad will offer the government a wonderful opportunity not only to announce a plan to close the chapter of disappearances but also to launch a serious initiative to resolve the Balochistan crisis.

It is clear that the issue of disappearances is linked with the need for a new political compact with the people of Balochistan. Disappearances constitute a crude response to the Baloch nationalist upsurge and they exacerbate the situation instead of controlling it. Ways must, therefore, be found, and as expeditiously as possible, to clear the ground for talks with Baloch dissidents without any distinction. After the beginning of negotiations with the Taliban any delay in offering an opening to the Baloch nationalists will cause incalculable harm to Pakistan.

The federal authority has to disabuse itself of any notion that dealing with disappearances or the bigger issue of a settlement with the dissident nationalists is the provincial government’s responsibility. The Balochistan crisis is a national issue because it touches on the very survival of the federation. Moreover, all the discontent in that province has resulted from federal acts of commission and omission, and the federation alone has the means and authority to take the steps needed to make amends for the persistent and systemic denial of Balochistan’s rights.

It is also time to discard the old charge-sheet against Baloch nationalists. They were not the first to start a confrontation with the state; in each round of conflict they can be shown to have reacted to unjustified violence. The militants among them have harmed their cause by taking out their bile on settlers; the gaps caused in their society by the loss of professionals, from barbers to teachers and doctors, have adversely affected their social outlook and progress. All this must stop.

The nationalists are often called by a variety of names that can provoke a population. In today’s world no political demands can be rejected out of hand. All matters can be discussed around a table and, given the requisite scale of goodwill and earnestness, there is nothing that cannot be settled in accordance with the recognised principles of justice and fair play.

But whether it is a question of giving the participants of the long march their due or moving towards peace with the Baloch people, the custodians of power must realise that while as a willing federating unit Balochistan will be a great source of strength to Pakistan, a disenchanted and alienated Balochistan will remain a potential threat to its integrity.