PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar`s article in these pages, in response to one by former senator Sanaullah Baloch, cleverly skirted the issue of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and missing persons in the country`s largest province of Balochistan.

It is, in fact, these two unresolved issues that have plagued the PPP-led process of reconciliation in the conflict-ridden province.

The PPP came to power for the first time in the history of Balochistan after the Feb 2008 polls. The ruling party`s pledge to end the insurgency, restore trust amongst the Baloch and ensure a permanent settlement of the Baloch dispute was heavily hinged on drastic constitutional and institutional changes. The party, despite all its promises, never opted for generous constitutional amendments that could restore the confidence of the Baloch people in Islamabad`s commitment to their cause.

A handful of measures taken to demonstrate that the so-called process of reconciliation was being initiated were, in fact, individual-specific. Besides Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Shahzain Bugti, a grandson of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, no commoner among the hundreds of `missing persons` has been released to date. The government has not even acknowledged the case of the missing persons and this compelled a relatively new organisation, the Baloch Liberation United Front, to abduct John Solecki, head of the UN refugee agency in Quetta on Feb 2.

The question is, was the PPP government waiting for such an ugly development — the kidnapping of a foreign aid worker — to raise the issue of Balochistan`s missing people? If it is not resolved immediately, can we actually afford another disgraceful incident in the future? Are such incidents what it would take to highlight the plight of the `disappeared`? Worse still, Rehman Malik, the advisor on interior affairs, brazenly ridiculed the Baloch list of missing persons by billing it `unrealistic` and `exaggerated`.

Similarly, Baloch nationalist demands include de-militarisation of the province; they have called upon the government to withdraw troops from Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts that stand ravaged by the military operation carried out during the Musharraf regime. A year after the general elections, neither has the army been pulled out from the conflict zones as a confidence-building measure (CBM) nor has the media been allowed access to witness and record the extent of excruciating damage caused to human life, property and livelihoods

Jamil and Talal Akbar Bugti, sons of the late Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, are not permitted to enter their native soil of Dera Bugti to offer fateha at the grave of their slain father — an undoubtedly inhuman and undemocratic act. How can Bugti`s sons and tribesmen believe that democracy has truly returned to Balochistan when they live under such cruel restrictions? The members of the opponent Bugti clans have been pitted against Akbar Bugti`s heirs who have no access to their land and other property. The personal library of the slain nawab, once believed to be one of the best collections in the region, is reported to have been looted by none other than big guns in the security forces.

Similarly, the PPP government, which clearly lacks the spunk to bypass the security and intelligence agencies, has failed to intervene in the existing humanitarian crisis in Dera Bugti and Kohlu. The five-year long armed conflict in the area has created over 100,000 internal displaced persons; hailing mainly from the Marri and Bugti tribes, IDPs have been forced to take refuge in neighbouring Naseerabad and Jaffarabad districts of Balochistan and are in desperate need of medical assistance, rehabilitation and economic incentives.

On the other hand, for over two years, security forces — the actual rulers of the area — have kept governmental and non-governmental organisations from not only conducting surveys in the area, but also from dispatching any form of aid to IDPs. How can the Baloch have faith in the PPP-led process of reconciliation when policies initiated by Pervez Musharraf persist? The process of reconciliation can only begin when IDPs receive medical care, food and a promise of a gradual return to their homes.

Furthermore, instead of ending the cycle of enforced disappearances, the state secret services have, under the PPP administration, allegedly begun whisking away political opponents all over again. Currently, no one knows the whereabouts of Dr Bashir Azeem, the central secretary general of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP), Jalil Rekhi, the party`s information secretary and another central leader of the opposition, Chakar Qambarani. Even a university student, Qambar Malik Baloch, was recently said to have been abducted by government functionaries.

Islamabad can no longer afford to oversimplify or underestimate the Baloch issue. It is time the centre treated the province in a dignified manner — empowered it politically, administratively and, most importantly, economically. It is crystal clear that the unrest and sense of deprivation in the province cannot be eliminated until Islamabad concedes to its demand of complete constitutional ownership of indigenous natural resources.

Therefore, the PPP government should seriously induct drastic constitutional reforms before the Balochistan conundrum spirals out of control. A powerless and deprived province poses a greater risk to the integrity of the federation of Pakistan. Democratic governments are expected to confront daunting challenges. If the PPP can defend its recent truce with Islamic extremists in Swat, then, as was rightly argued by Sanaullah Baloch, why can it not come up with a similar bold initiative that guarantees economic and political sovereignty for Balochistan?

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta.