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A new leaf on Balochistan?

September 29, 2012


HAS it now become the nature of our beloved country that good news will only be fleeting or can recent events be cause for longer-term comfort?

Despite the grim and bloody ground reality, the return to Pakistan of Baloch leader Akhtar Mengal to make a statement before the Supreme Court in the case of the ‘missing persons’ represented a rare ray of hope.

He sought an end to the operation and the kill-and-dump policy in the province, the return of the missing, the disbandment of the ‘death squads run by the intelligence agencies’, the trial of those responsible, rehabilitation of the Dera Bugti displaced and freedom to all Baloch parties to operate.

That he spelled out what he thought was necessary to bring Balochistan back from the brink was significant but even more important was the fact that the leader who has spent the past three years in exile thought there was a point in returning at all.

When asked if he didn’t fear arrest, given the number of open cases against him, Akhtar Mengal said he not only came himself but persuaded a lot of his comrades to return despite the perils, as this was the last chance to avoid a ‘bloody divorce’, to give the final message.

His tone was measured though the emotion, the pain he expressed for the suffering of his people appeared to come from deep within. In an extremely positive note, he didn’t rule out taking part in the next election though he was insistent his priority was the missing and not the polls.

But the day after Mengal’s statement, the government and the agencies in their response to the Supreme Court categorically denied there was any operation in Balochistan. And also that there were no officially sponsored death squads or missing in the custody of the agencies.

The official statement on its own doesn’t dampen hope as it was hardly likely that the military agencies would accept the existence of death squads before the apex court or even admit to an operation when the army chief has denied it more than once.

All these developments represent small pieces of a big jigsaw. It would be impossible to predict the final shape of this puzzle until all the pieces have fallen into place. There are many unanswered questions.

The first and foremost question is whether the former Balochistan chief minister came to depose before the Supreme Court entirely of his own accord or whether his appearance represented any behind-the-scenes move aimed at reconciliation.

This question is very crucial. In conversations, people who have an insight into the thinking of the military on Balochistan have given broad hints that no matter how bad the situation appears to be from the outside, the ‘iron hand’ being used is delivering results.

They refer to the decline in the number of murders of the non-Baloch, most notably Punjabi settlers, ever since this policy went into operation. “Look at how the non-Baloch murders have nosedived, ever since the separatists have been forced to pay in kind,” was one how one source put it.

You can’t be blamed for finding such statements scary. Many would view these with a sense of déjà vu as we heard similar talk in the run-up to the separation of our eastern wing in 1971. Yes, one isn’t unaware of the arguments of the military.

East Pakistan was so distant that it wasn’t possible to keep a logistics route, a supply line, open. India, a belligerent, hostile power, the enemy, lay between the two wings rendering the defence forces helpless. Heaven forbid if Balochistan was a similar story. It isn’t.

But that is not the point, is it? India’s role aside, there was not a huge international game being played out in the region that expedited the break-up of Pakistan. If the larger world got interested in events then it was primarily because of the humanitarian crisis that the civil war was causing.

However, today the backdrop is very different. Whether there is a new Great Game on in the region I don’t know. But what we all know is that the US forces in Afghanistan are keen to get out after a decade-long presence.

Keen as they may be to withdraw, it is reasonable to assume that upon their departure they don’t wish a return to conditions there which first prompted the US forces to come in. Washington believes Islamabad, or more appropriately Rawalpindi, has the power to help but is a reluctant ally.

So any leverage that can, should be used.

If the situation was even as ‘straightforward’ as the desire of the US to leave Afghanistan after a reasonable assurance that the edifice it has tried so hard to build wouldn’t disappear the moment the last giant transporter took off from Bagram airbase, it would still be simple. But it isn’t.

Whether the destabilisation of repressive Syria is merely part of a collage or integral to plans to deal with Shia Iran one can’t say for certain. However, there isn’t any ambiguity about efforts to isolate the government in Tehran.

And Iran’s mostly estranged Sunni Baloch could be drafted in to play a role if it hasn’t happened already. Who knows if the Baloch on our side of the border are also seen as part of this strategy? Many close to the military leadership believe they are.

Isn’t it then incumbent on the military and civil leadership to capitalise on the opportunity represented by Akhtar Mengal’s return? He has the credibility to serve as a bridge between estranged but reconcilable Baloch groups and those at the helm.

It’s time to abandon the bloodied iron hand and reach out with the healing touch. Tell me how that wouldn’t be more desirable than a bloody divorce.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.