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Proceed with caution

January 14, 2013

IT was one of the most striking representations of how badly the Balochistan government had let its people down. The image of Hazara Shias huddled in the Quetta cold, seated around bodies they had refused to bury for three days, reflected nothing so much as desperation. Who can blame them? It was the desperation of a people whose government had turned a blind eye to the fact that they are systematically being exterminated for practising religious beliefs that a group of violent extremists happen not to agree with. Sadly it took the loss of dozens of lives on Thursday to prompt an official response. But that event united people in protest across the length and breadth of the country, turning this weekend into an inspiring instance of ordinary Pakistanis peacefully — and successfully — exercising their right to hold those they have elected to account.

The imposition of governor rule in Balochistan should also, though, be recognised for what it is: a necessary but unfortunate interruption of a democratically elected set-up. The indifference of this particular government demanded that it be sent home. But rather than implement governor rule for two months, as the president has done, it would have been preferable to quickly elect a new chief minister. And given the delicate juncture Pakistani politics currently stands at, there is a danger that developments in Balochistan might be used to argue for a dismissal of governments in other provinces or at the centre. Refraining from calling in the army, which the protesters had demanded, was the right thing to do. A similarly cautious line has to be drawn before the Balochistan case leads to a domino effect of falling governments and possibly plays into the hands of those who would like to delay elections or otherwise undermine the system.

Second, governor rule is not the answer to Balochistan’s poor governance. In particular, the dissolution of this administration will be pointless unless the next chief minister takes concrete steps to protect Hazara Shias. That would include pressuring the Frontier Corps and intelligence agencies, which never hesitate to pursue Baloch nationalists but have let sectarian extremists get away with mass murder under their noses in Quetta. We know which groups are behind the attacks, where they operate from, who they target and where, and the patterns their attacks follow. There is little question, then, that they have managed to carry out their agenda because of a lack of concern on the part of both the former government and the security establishment. Any future set-up will be just as much a failure if it doesn’t manage to muster that will.