IN one of the most noticeable statements from the country’s military leadership, Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa has proposed that a “people-centric approach based on local ownership” should be adopted as far as securing the “ongoing developmental activity and future trade” in Balochistan under CPEC is concerned.
The army chief also acknowledged that the province has been ‘unfortunately’ neglected in the past for a host of reasons but said that was not the case anymore. Gen Bajwa’s thoughts, shared with an audience in Khuzdar, are significant, given that the army has been the senior partner in the running of state policies, including security affairs, in the province for a number of years now.
If the army chief is prepared to walk the talk and if the government, with a new dispensation at the helm of the army and its intelligence set-up which isn’t hostile to it, feels empowered now to seize the initiative and roll out policy measures aimed at assuaging the pain of the Baloch, a new beginning can be made.
The army chief’s proposal for a people-centric approach to Balochistan is significant.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is supposed to bring in direly needed investment to the resource-starved ramshackle infrastructure of the country to boost growth in the economy, and eventually deliver its fruit to the people of Pakistan in the shape of more job opportunities, better standard of living etc.
Therefore, if many voices that represent the Baloch people are expressing concern at the prospect of being marginalised and overwhelmed by the influx of the non-Baloch as CPEC takes concrete shape, then these concerns need to be looked at and addressed.
That is why Gen Bajwa’s view that a people-centric approach and local ownership is needed to realise the benefits of the huge investment in infrastructure and the resultant trade appears significant.
Just as the government, after making CPEC controversial among the three smaller provinces and almost alienating them, decided to include the chief ministers of Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in last month’s Beijing meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee to very positive effect, it should take the initiative to invite all significant voices expressing concern in Balochistan to sit around the table and address their misgivings.
One can understand the security establishment’s discomfort with leaders such as Brahmdagh Bugti who have now chosen to seek India’s help, which the Pakistani authorities believe is involved in fomenting violence in the province.
At the same time, there are many, many Baloch leaders (and I am happy to talk specifics should someone be interested) who are still struggling for the rights of their people within the ambit of democratic conduct and the federation. These voices must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to become despondent.
Side by side with such a move possibly by the government, the military, for its part, needs to debate within the institution how far it is prepared to go to repair the damage done to national cohesion by the utterly mindless, roughshod policies pursued by some of its past leaders.
The chain of events leading up to the transformation of Nawab Akbar Bugti, until then one of the iconic pro-Pakistan and pro-establishment figures in the province, into a rebel who took to the mountains and was killed fighting the military, are an abject lesson in how not to handle the Baloch and Balochistan.
Even after his killing, no attempt was made to apply the healing touch to the province and its poor yet proud people. Well before Indian involvement exacerbated the situation, the man described by his own army colleagues as near-psychopathic, one Maj-Gen Nadeem Ijaz, Musharraf’s DG MI unleashed a reign of terror in Balochistan.
Apart from his proximity to his relative Musharraf, there was no apparent reason why Military Intelligence was given the lead role in Balochistan areas traditionally seen as the responsibility of the Inter-Services Intelligence.
The idea here is not to dwell too much on the tragic, bloody past and a still uncertain present but merely to illustrate what may be needed to undo the damage done by callous state policies over the past decade and some.
I have repeatedly written about the disastrous policies of use of non-state actors, most notably sectarian elements, to curb those seen as separatists. The province is still reeling in the aftermath of that policy as characters such as Shafique Mengal are now openly identifying themselves with Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami and attacking the state itself.
If one wasn’t aware of all the sensitivities and sensibilities in the country and the institutions, it would have been easy to propose a general amnesty, and then a truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of the successful South African model headed by someone of the stature of Justice Qazi Faez Isa.
But no, it won’t work. We have no tradition of such openness and many of those who have wielded power of life and death over fellow Pakistanis, and exercised it once too often, would obviously not like to be identified as most of their actions were from the comfort of obscurity.
One hopes that the next time the prime minister, the army chief and the intelligence bosses sit down to discuss security issues they also have Balochistan on the agenda. I have had the privilege of having travelled in the beautiful province, falling in love with it and having many of its proud sons as friends.
If a foreign hand is indeed actually involved in fanning unrest, an iron-fisted security policy on its own won’t be enough. It rarely ever is. While those who remain hell-bent on breaking the law need to have the book thrown at them (not snatched, shot and dumped), the rest need to see a sincere hand extended to them. This is not rocket science.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2017