Balochistan: time for healing

Published March 28, 2010

THE low-intensity Baloch insurgency has remained a festering issue for a few decades now. A country that faces a host of external threats can ill afford to let this volatile issue further complicate its internal and external security environment and it must be resolved once and for all.

Sadly, the past governments showed no political foresight or the will to confront and resolve tricky issues of provincial autonomy and control over province's natural resources through ingenious solutions.

Instead, they used force against the dissenting sardars or undertook development work that was dismissed as window dressing. Absence of long term, comprehensive and sustainable measures allowed the issue to snowball and grow larger than it really was.

Equally responsible has been the brutal attitude of Pakistan army and security agencies in suppressing the dissident voices resulting in killings of innocent citizens. As a result, the Baloch leaders tended to treat Pakistan army as a colonial army.

The demands of the insurgents notwithstanding, there are issues that genuinely affect people's lives at grassroots level. Ethnicity, intertwined with a sense of political isolation, endemic neglect and relative economic deprivation has agitated the Baloch mind and became a potent force in evoking anti-state sentiment.

Economic and social disparity is highlighted by the Balochistan Economic Report 2009 (from 1972-73 to 2005-06). It states that Balochistan's economy expanded by only 2.7 times, while those of the NWFP and Sindh expanded by 3.6 times and that of Punjab by four times.

For 2006-07 Balochistan figured lowest on social indicators such as education, literacy, health, water and sanitation. A World Bank study notes that illiteracy in Balochistan was as high as 60 per cent.

While the federation is to blame for letting this happen to a resource rich province, the tribal chiefs also directly and indirectly disallowed fruits of development from reaching their people.

Comprising 43 per cent of the total area, Balochistan has just 5 per cent of Pakistan's population, of which almost half is Pashtun population in the north. Ethnic divide exists between the Baloch and Pashtun tribes.

Of about 250 of them, only three Baloch sardars of Bugti, Marri and Mengal tribes have taken up arms against the federation at various times. Other Baloch tribes are either with the federation or take a middle ground.

The dissident Baloch sardars were driven by their interest to keep the status quo and tried to block democratisation of their tribal society which could threaten their unchallenged authoritarian rule, if they were to remain part of the federation. An independent Balochistan was therefore their best option and Baloch nationalism their vehicle of choice.

Successive federal governments having shied away from promoting genuine federalism for fear of compromising national unity gave these sardars the pretext to mobilise their people against the state. Nationalist sentiments got a boost in Balochistan and Sindh. The slogan of Baloch nationalism initially did not have many buyers but after being ignored consistently by the federal government, the average Baloch accepted the slogan.

After Bangladesh, India focused on Balochistan. Initially, some reports say, RAW made inroads into dissidents and later, when Afghanistan came under US occupation, Mossad, MI 6 and even CIA jumped into the fray with an expanded agenda of Greater Balochistan.

Small pockets of local resistance mushroomed into a full grown anti-state movement, discretely supported by the three tribal chiefs. As hub for joint operations, India established a ring of 26 consulates along the Balochistan border in Afghanistan and Iran, mainly in Kandahar and Jalalabad, which reportedly began funding, training and arming dissidents.

The leaders of the insurgency have publicly identified their sponsors. Brahamdagh Bugti, a BLA leader, was quoted as saying that he would accept assistance from India, Afghanistan or Iran to defend the Baloch nationalist cause.

In a statement Dr. Wahid Baloch, President of Baloch Society of North America, said, “We love our Indian friends and want them to help and rescue us from tyranny and oppression. In fact, India is the only country which has shown concern over the Baloch plight, but showing concern is not enough. We want India to take Balochistan's issue to every international forum, the same way Pakistan has done to raise the so-called Kashmiri issue. We want India to openly support our just cause and provide us with all moral, financial, military and diplomatic support.”

Not to be left behind was the former RAW agent B. Raman who wrote to Sonia Gandhi 'struggle for an independent Balochistan is part of the unfinished agenda of the partition'.

At least six active insurgent groups currently operate in Balochistan that are led by the scions of rebel tribal chiefs in line to succeed their aging patriarchs. After several decades the movement now appears to have found sympathisers among the urban class, the youth in diaspora as well as the local educated urban youth with a progressive bent of mind.

But the movement offers no substitute to sardari system, which is unacceptable in modern day and age and takes the Baloch back into the past rather than into the future.

With arms flowing in and training imparted to a large number of tribesmen, the dissidents with the support of their foreign friends are working to create enough strength to take the insurgency to a level where a Bangladesh type situation could be created.

Insurgencies are always difficult to fight due to the very nature of warfare involved. But the experience of counter-insurgency operations that Pakistan army gained in Swat and Waziristan changes the complexion of things. There is little chance of Balochistan becoming another Bangladesh, despite the insurgency enjoying the support of certain foreign elements.

Some factors that will inhibit insurgents from implementing their agenda include a much smaller size of their resistance; a smaller and dispersed Baloch population over a much larger area; tribal rivalries and lack of broad tribal support on this issue; substantial Pashtun population that does not support the insurgency; and the relative ease of operation for the army and the air force in case the federation opts to undertake military action.

In the case of Bangladesh these factors were more favourable to the insurgents there due to a thousand miles of territory between the two wings.

For the insurgents the solution, therefore, lies not in armed confrontation with the state but a meaningful dialogue. Their struggle has strongly registered the point that the Baloch have genuine concerns that must be urgently addressed and their confidence in the federation restored.

Punjab and Sindh are amenable to supporting Balochistan for a faster pace of development. The centre is also anxious to rectify past mistakes and provide greater attention to its political and economic needs to bring it at par with rest of the country, which President Zardari openly offered recently.

A 'consensual' Balochistan package named 'Aghaze Huqooq-e-Balochistan', is being developed by the federal government covering constitutional, administrative and economic aspects which will address political, social and economic problems.

Now is the time for the Baloch leaders of all shades to begin talking to the government. The consensual acceptance of NFC award by all four provincial governments speaks volumes about the spirit of cooperation that marks the environment of empathy towards Balochistan. The federal government has moved to raise Baloch comfort level by actions such as replacing the army with FC in areas of conflict.

But for these efforts to succeed the dissident leadership will have to dissociate itself from their patron agencies and shun violence. BLA will have to wind up its headquarter in Jerusalem and fundraising office in Washington DC. Other groups will have to follow suit. Baloch nationalism will have to be redefined within the ambit of Pakistani statehood. The dissidents will have to now talk of democratisation of Baloch society instead of restoration of sardari system, of human rights and of changing the lives of disadvantaged people.

On its part the federal government will have to approach the Balochistan issue with an open and liberal mindset, engage the dissidents in a meaningful dialogue about their inclusion in the political process within the framework of the federation and give to the Baloch people a deal that has long been denied and which they cannot refuse.

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