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Peace for the Baloch

May 18, 2011

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A REGIONAL consultation on intra-state conflicts in South Asia, caused by some minority communities’ assertion of their right to autonomy, offered Pakistan’s policymakers and students of politics a great deal of food for thought, especially in view of a lack of serious discourse on the subject in this country.

The consultation organised by the South Asian Forum for Human Rights discussed conflicts arising at the time of state formation on the inclusion of certain territories in new states and their demand for self-determination, dissatisfaction with the existing social contract and the growth of democracy deficit in highly centralised states, and the rise of minority demands for ethnic homelands.

The focus was on an audit of peace accords negotiated for the resolution of some of the conflicts in South Asia, such as the agreements with the Nagas, the Mizos and the Bodos in India and with the tribal population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Also discussed were the autonomy movement in Madhes, Nepal, that has received a boost during the country’s search for a new constitution and the nationalist upsurge in Balochistan.

The discussion on Balochistan was based on a fresh study that argued that peace in Balochistan is meaningful, even possible, only if an end to violence is accompanied by justice in terms of a change in the status quo by establishing fair power relationships between the civil and military authorities, the centre and the province, and the elite and ordinary people.

The immediate measures suggested for giving the peace process a promising start include: cessation of military operations and human rights abuse, withdrawal of the army and the FC, recovery of the ‘missing persons’, an end to the state’s plans to rule the province through its co-opted elite, and facilitating productive economic activity.

While these suggestions are generally in harmony with the domestic democratic opinion on Balochistan a disturbing finding was that although the unrest in that province has been on the national agenda for more than six decades there has been no peace accord between the Baloch and the state. This point was not one of the main issues on the agenda of the recent consultation but it needs to be addressed by all those who wish to secure peace and justice in Balochistan.

History supports the view that each Baloch uprising has been suppressed by the state through force and without any peace settlement. The first uprising (1948) was suppressed through a quick military operation and its leaders punished. The second uprising (Ayub regime) was crushed through a mixture of force and chicanery, and a festering sore was created when the state reneged on its pledge of amnesty given to Sardar Nauroz Khan. The armed struggle of the 1970s was ended by Ziaul Haq’s offering palliatives to its political leaders but without any settlement on the issues that had caused the conflict.

Gen Musharraf not only ignored Baloch national aspirations but also looked down upon them and threatened them in the language of an insolent bully. He believed, more or less like Ayub Khan, that development projects could persuade any people to forego their autonomy demands. The present government has added political and economic concessions to Balochistan (the 18th Amendment, the reform package and the NFC award) to the policy of settling issues through force. That this strategy can’t deliver is manifest for the simple reason that no package has been given shape in consultation with the people.

While the state has never considered the Baloch dissidents worthy of negotiations across the table, it has also largely been indifferent to non-state initiatives to establish peace and tranquillity in Balochistan. The Bhutto-Bizenjo accord of 1972 was wrecked by Bizenjo’s rivals in his own party and Mr Bhutto himself. The memorandum of understanding signed by the MRD parties in the 1980s was never taken seriously by the signatories except for the Baloch.

During the Musharraf regime, the Senate committee made some sensible proposals but lacked the will to attach to the matter the priority it deserved. Thus, the Baloch believe that besides being oppressed by the state they have also been abandoned by the country’s political parties and the people in general.

The harmful consequences of not having a peace accord with the Baloch people are fairly evident. The state’s lack of interest in negotiating a settlement with the nationalists, including those that are labelled as insurgents, amounts to a denial of their status as citizens who are entitled to be party to any social contract on which the state must be based. This leads to the Baloch people’s alienation from the state.

Besides, in the absence of a peace accord the parties to the conflict are without any legitimate framework or context for their demands and assurances. Focus on specific issues becomes difficult. The people outside Balochistan have no measure with which to judge the legitimacy or otherwise of the Baloch nationalists’ demands or the state’s policy of denial.

If it is possible for the powers that be to realise that a peace accord with the Baloch nationalists is necessary, the next step is identification of elements with whom a compact would be meaningful. There certainly are elements in Balochistan who believe that the time for a settlement within a federal framework has passed and if they are so numerous as to make the rest politically irrelevant, then too an accord with them will be necessary, only its terms will be different from those of an intra-federation settlement.

The trouble is that the state is not talking even to elements that are prepared for accommodation within the federation provided that their rights as an autonomous unit are fully secured. The present Balochistan Assembly does not have the requisite credentials. For one thing, the 2008 polls were boycotted by the nationalist parties and for another the present provincial government enjoys little real authority.

Unless the state can find a way of bringing all the diverse elements in Balochistan to the peace table, an early election to determine the people’s genuine representatives will become unavoidable. The essential fact to be realised is that peace cannot be established in Balochistan without an accord on democratic self-government.

One should not be unmindful of the obstacles on the road to a peace accord in Balochistan. The custodians of the security state would go to any length to deny the Baloch nationalists their right to speak for themselves. The bureaucrats would be loath to give up the powers they have enjoyed for ages. The consequences of recognising ‘outlaws and criminals’ would be presented in lurid detail.

But a surrender to the vested interest would only mean adding to the agony of the Baloch people and undermining the state’s capacity to deal with the crisis in future. The risks in allowing the present drift to continue are far greater and more serious than those in seeking peace by accommodating the angry, dispossessed and the deeply hurt Baloch.