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Mengal’s warning

March 21, 2013

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SARDAR Akhtar Mengal’s declaration that the forthcoming election will not settle matters in strife-torn Balochistan must be taken seriously by all those who have any say in the affairs of the state.

The electronic media recently reported that Mengal had written an open letter to the chief justice of the country but few newspapers carried reference to it. One hopes that this was due to nothing more than a shared error of judgment by the news desks and that the people will not be denied access to the letter.

It is possible that Mengal wishes to follow up on his appearance in the Supreme Court last year and that he wants the apex court to make another attempt to give his people justice.

This view is supported by Mengal’s line of argument that he has advanced in a television interview. He has challenged the priorities of the political parties in Balochistan that are concentrating on electoral matters and the formation of a caretaker regime.

If these parties want democracy to be consolidated in Balochistan and the true representatives of the people to be elected, he says, then they (the political parties) should first free themselves from elements that are every day throwing out the mutilated corpses of young Baloch people.

Before delving into the matter any further it may be appropriate to lay down the premise that the holding of peaceful and fair elections is of critical importance not only to efforts to restore normalcy in Balochistan but also to the future of democracy in Pakistan, in fact perhaps to the integrity of the state itself.

Also, the reasons for listening to Akhtar Mengal are wholly valid. While discussing the prospects of elections in Balochistan we are concerned only with territory that is dominated by the Baloch as in the Pakhtun areas there are no problems other than traditional electoral malpractices.

It is no secret that all Baloch are nationalists and many of them have been driven to assume extreme postures by the oppression perpetuated by the state. With regard to elections to the national and provincial legislatures the community is divided into three main groups.

At one extreme are the self-seeking opportunists who are prepared to serve the establishment on whatever terms it offers. At the other extreme are ultra-nationalist elements, some of them armed, who wish to have nothing to do with the elections. Some of them have in fact threatened to use violence to disrupt the electoral process.

Between these extremes stand the moderates. One sub-group has decided to fight its battles within the parliamentary system and is prepared to join the electoral contest whatever the circumstances might be. It could change course if the situation becomes unbearably violent.

The other sub-group, which Akhtar Mengal spearheads, will be prepared to take part in the elections if certain conditions are met. These conditions, as far as one can gather, are: firstly, an end to enforced disappearances and the dumping of dead bodies of “missing persons”, and, secondly, guarantees that the presence of military forces in Balochistan will not affect the electoral process in the province.

The best bet in favour of democracy and fair elections in Balochistan would be to enable the group in the middle to play its part in the key federating unit’s political recovery and reconstruction. The alternative, namely, the election of legislators belonging to an establishment-backed coalition of some sardars and criminal gangs, will push Balochistan and Pakistan over the precipice.

Thus it is essential to strengthen the political role of the group in the middle of Balochistan’s political spectrum by accommodating Akhtar Mengal and others like him.

At one level, the situation will test the ability of the Election Commission of Pakistan to read the signs correctly. The Baloch do not share Punjab’s view of the military’s benign attitude towards elections. In this difference in perceptions of the military’s role lies the root of the Balochistan crisis. How will the Election Commission overcome the problem?

At the other, and perhaps more important, level Akhtar Mengal has raised the issues that the Supreme Court wrestled with for the better part of 2012 — disappearances, the dumping of dead bodies and breakdown of law and order. And the court had to throw up its hands in despair. The chief justice was constrained to observe that after six months of efforts by the court the result was zero.

The court put the blame for everything on the Raisani ministry and the officials, and it took the federal government to task for failing to intervene when the constitutional machinery had broken down. The court’s warrant against Raisani was executed, though with the customary delay.

It is perhaps necessary to review the assessment that the political authorities were in command. Plenty of evidence was available to show that they were not.

The Balochistan government was suspended but the ground reality remained largely unchanged. This was confirmed when one of the two most horrible pogroms against the Hazaras took place in Quetta under governor’s rule and the dead bodies of the Baloch (who had been picked up in Balochistan) started being dumped in Karachi. The implications of continued anti-Baloch violence are pretty obvious.

Unfortunately, no easy way out of the Balochistan conundrum is visible. No single party or institution, with the possible exception of the army, can guarantee peace during elections and in the long run. Something could be done if all parties and state institutions got together and accepted their duty to act in the best interests of the Baloch.

That precisely is the challenge Pakistan is facing today. And Akhtar Mengal is only asking the people of Pakistan, especially the supposedly advanced citizens outside Balochistan, whether they can stand the test.