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Worrying signs before polls

April 13, 2013

WHILE the major worry for those keen on seeing a level playing field remains the Taliban threat to disrupt the ANP, PPP and MQM election campaigns, an equally worrying situation exists in Balochistan.

It is no less a concern that when the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) first threatened to disrupt the campaign of ‘secular’ parties and now that it has actually started a campaign of bombings and assassinations to deliver on its threat, all other parties in the fray kept and are keeping mum.

Wouldn’t you expect democrats such as Mian Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan to condemn the TTP for carrying out these attacks? Whether their silence is indicative of fear of annoying the Taliban or they are quiet merely because they see a political advantage accruing to them it is quite disgusting, if you ask me.

Although legitimacy of electoral wins in the past has meant nothing to winners of engineered elections, this time round one would have hoped that given the manner of naming the chief election commissioner and almost the entire the caretaker set-up, transparent polls were every party’s priority.

How fair would be the polls if a sizeable chunk of contenders is hamstrung in campaigning while others enjoy full freedom to share their programmes and ideas with the electorate? No one is saying this is, in any way, the problem of parties that aren’t being targeted.

It is squarely the responsibility of the caretaker governments to provide protection but we also know that there is no iron-clad security especially in a country where lack of ‘consensus’ on action against the militants has meant they have drawn blood at will, attacked the state and gone unchallenged.

What remains surprising is the total lack of empathy among leaders for their fellow politicians when even the ideological difference between all of them remains so blurred most of the time that you struggle to tell them apart. Perhaps, the TTP is better at identifying these than some of us.

While the TTP now appears to be a runaway monster, which even the military seems to be struggling to contain, one would have thought that Akhtar Mengal’s return to the country indicated a change of heart on the part of those at the helm of the state’s Balochistan policy.

But did it? The disappearances may have declined in number but they continue, with bodies now being dumped even in Karachi. Akhtar Mengal’s home district headquarter Khuzdar is under control of armed bands who have been allegedly given the task of sorting out separatists using whatever means needed.

These hostile armed men, who seem to enjoy total immunity from the law and, in fact, act as allies of the Frontier Corps, decide who can and cannot enter and move about in the area. Little wonder Akhtar Mengal has repeatedly asked the government to ensure the ‘no-go’ areas are made accessible.

His decision couldn’t have been easy in the first place. On the one hand he has had to defy separatist militant leaders such as Dr Allah Nazar whose Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) is active in and around Mengal’s constituency.

Allah Nazar has already criticised the BNP (Mengal) chief’s decision to contest the elections and accused him of collusion with those who have oppressed the Baloch, killed them in large numbers and denied them their rights.

The state would be foolish not to put its own surrogate militiamen on a tight leash. If leaders such as Akhtar Mengal cannot campaign freely, they might feel constrained to withdraw from the elections and that would be tragic.

Yes, tragic. One saw how much credibility the ‘strong and formidable’ Raisani government had in the province and especially with the separatists. Leaders such as Akhtar Mengal and Hasil Bizenjo are the safest bet for opening a line of communication with separatist groups.

This is very significant simply because whilst the armed nationalist struggle in yesteryears was led and dominated by tribal sardars and the manpower for it was based on tribal loyalties rather than ideological commitment, the BLF phenomenon is different. In fact, while the authorities seem to have clamped down on areas of resistance where Bugti (Dera Bugti) or Marri (Kohlu) tribes were up in arms and largely controlled them, the spread of the separatist movement to areas not dominated by sardars in the western parts of the province is far more alarming.

This is mainly because the militant cadres are formed by ideologically motivated youth who are politically far more educated than the tribals who pick up arms on the call of their sardar. Therefore, it would make eminent sense to facilitate ‘nationalist’ leaders who are contesting the elections.

If they can move freely in areas which are now some of the worst-hit by insurgency without being impeded by the pro-military militias, perhaps they can make inroads during the campaign into the separatist strongholds.

Balochistan watchers are keenly looking out for signs of sanity in the state’s policy towards the province. The authorities may be smug, thinking they have mostly crushed the separatist movement whose leadership is based abroad but they’ll need to take a hard look at how effective their campaign is, for example, against the BLF.

With its leader directing cadres from somewhere within Balochistan, despite having been targeted by hundreds of disappearances, this separatist group doesn’t seem to have been weakened and retains its ability to strike at security forces.

The state can enforce its will through force of arms but also needs to keep in mind the fact that sometimes a two-track approach works better. It is incumbent on all to make sure every possible avenue of restoration of peace is not left unexplored. A free and fair election is one way of achieving that goal.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.