From the margins

Published February 1, 2024

THE verdant landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan and the craggy terrains of Balochistan are echoing with protests that demand attention to long-neglected issues. These cries highlight a deep-seated discontent that overshadows the upcoming general elections. While elections in GB are some years away, the region is largely managed by the centre. Key among the GB protesters’ demands has been the restoration of the subsidised wheat price to the 2022 level, a significant concern given recent inflationary pressures. While this particular demand has been met, others remain unaddressed. These include the suspension of the Finance Act 2022, withdrawal of various taxes, ensuring GB’s share in the National Finance Commission award, and provision of land ownership rights to locals. Meanwhile, Balochistan — where elections will take place on Feb 8 — is witnessing a different but equally poignant set of protests. For some years, the province has seen a rise in demonstrations in Gwadar and, more recently, Turbat. The discontent in Turbat is driven by a demand to end extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, reflecting crucial issues of governance and human rights. Unlike Gwadar’s protests, which focused on basic necessities and civil rights, Turbat’s sit-ins underscore a desperate plea for the most vital elements of citizenship: life and liberty. In the backdrop of these protests lies a complex political landscape. Balochistan has been plagued by a history of political alignments more focused on federal appeasement than regional development. This pattern, evident in the tenure of 24 chief ministers since the 1970s — many of whom have been feudal lords or tribal chieftains — has contributed significantly to the province’s arrested development. Corruption, law and order deterioration, and ineffective representation have marred its growth.

The people of GB and Balochistan are disillusioned with the elections. A deep sense of betrayal prevails there from years of unmet promises and overlooked needs. As Pakistan gears up for another electoral exercise, it is high time political parties and candidates recognised and addressed these pressing issues genuinely. Voters in these regions seek more than just promises; they demand concrete actions that will improve their lives. The challenges in GB and Balochistan are a litmus test for Pakistan’s democratic maturity. Will the politicians vying for power heed these voices from the margins, or will these areas continue to be footnotes in the nation’s political saga?

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2024

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