THERE is the official narrative on Balochistan, the one propagated by the security establishment and the state, and then there is what appears to be the real story from the province — a grim chronology of deaths and disappearances.

Tragically, among civil society organisations and the media, there are few voices that narrate anything other than what the security establishment is peddling.

Consider that on a day that army chief Gen Raheel Sharif dominated the Balochistan-related headlines with allegations about Indian interference in the province, there was another, far less publicised tale being told elsewhere.

The courageous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which has consistently shone a light on state excesses, was discussing unverified reports of civilian casualties in an operation in Mastung — though for political and public relations purposes the term ‘military operations’ is avoided in Balochistan.

With few independently verified facts from large swathes of the province, the murkiness of Balochistan is virtually impenetrable. It could well be that the security forces were targeting active militants and allegations of multiple civilian casualties have been exaggerated.

But the questions the HRCP has raised are valid — and demand an honest answer.

There is little doubt that Balochistan poses a complex problem. Geographically vast; relatively sparsely populated; sharing a troubled border with two countries; geo-strategically vital; a region where this country’s geopolitical past intersects with its geopolitical future; a base for militants, separatists, sectarian militants and transnational insurrectionists — that only begins to cover the security problems in the province.

Balochistan has also been blighted by a political leadership that has considered it easier to cut deals with Islamabad than to represent its own people’s aspirations and needs.

Yet, none of that should diminish the original and continuing problem in Balochistan: a disaffected section of the Baloch population, which feels alienated from the Pakistani state and has used violence to draw attention to many valid and continuing grievances.

But there is a more fundamental principle also at stake here. In fighting anti-state violence, the state should never use disproportionate violence and should always, in every instance, take every possible measure to ensure that civilians are never targeted. If morality does not satisfy, then perhaps pragmatic arguments will.

The fight and longest-running insurgency in Balochistan feed off stories of excess and repression by the state. Just because the rest of Pakistan does not hear the tales of excess, it does not mean the disaffected Baloch do not either.

Published in Dawn, April 15th, 2016

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