ISLAMABAD, Nov 23 The government will unfold a promised package on Balochistan in parliament on Tuesday in a major political move to appease the long-standing dissent in the troubled province.
The National Assembly and Senate will meet in a joint sitting called by President Asif Ali Zardari at 3pm to hear from Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani a likely set of both political and administrative ways to peacefully address what is usually called the “Balochistan problem”.
The prime minister had last-minute discussions on Monday with the president and a parliamentary committee that formulated the proposals for the package, which a presidential spokesman said in a statement “contains a series of constitutional reforms, economic measures and administrative steps to assuage the hurt feelings of the people of Balochistan”.
The joint sitting will likely be prorogued after the presentation of the package, which a parliamentary source of the ruling party said could be debated in another joint sitting for approval after Eidul Azha, which falls on Nov 28.
Though the government has refrained from revealing any details, its spokesmen have said the document will be based on the report of the parliamentary committee headed by Senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan People's Party and also draw on the recommendations of a committee of the previous parliament, which Gen Musharraf had ignored.
But there has been widespread speculation about the possibility of announcing confidence-building measures like giving up plans to construct new military cantonments in the province opposed by Baloch nationalists, a general amnesty for dissidents fighting security forces in the mountains and blamed for acts of sabotage like bomb blasts to blow up gas pipelines and electricity pylons, and assurances of provincial control over the newly-built Gwadar port and main mineral projects.
What has now developed into a low-intensity insurgency revolves around the Baloch demand for the control of natural resources of the country's largest but least populated province and more provincial autonomy as well as grouse about lack of economic and social development compared to other provinces.
The package is likely to come up mainly with short-term administrative and political measures while the issue of autonomy could wait for constitutional amendments, which are being considered by another Rabbani-headed joint parliamentary committee and which could apply to all the four provinces.
Its very official name of “Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan” (the beginning of the rights of Balochistan) indicates the package is not intended to solve all problems that have afflicted the province since the early days of Pakistan, marked by armed revolts and exiles of nationalist leaders and activists, some of whom even espoused secessionist plans.
While successive military regimes preferred military means over political dialogue, the first major initiative of a civilian leader in Balochistan was taken in the 1970s by then PPP prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto whose forward policy was a mix of politics - abolition of the Sardari system and use of contradictions between the Sardars -- and military force that he could not accomplish before being toppled by a 1977 military coup.
In the new situation, the present PPP government's initiative is likely to be marked more by appeasement as is evident from an apology offered by President Zardari to the people of Balochistan even before being elected to the office last year for perceived wrongs done to them in the past.
Efforts of several months have gone into the formulation of the package, including direct and indirect contacts of the president and the prime minister with the Baloch leaders, dissidents, opposition politicians, including Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif, and allies in the ruling coalition.
An official statement quoted Mr Gilani as calling the package in his meeting with the parliamentary committee as a “historical step forward which he hoped would “go a long way in redressing the grievances and removing the sense of deprivation among the people of Balochistan and will strengthen the federation of Pakistan”.
It said the meeting reviewed and deliberated the final draft prepared by the committee “in consultation with all the stake-holders and political leadership of the country”.