Freedom, reconciliation or annihilation — three choices confront the Pakistan government when faced with the question of Balochistan. Ironically, the same three choices confront the Baloch separatists.
The Pakistani establishment has given all indication that it favours the option of annihilation. Despite giving some mixed signals in its rhetoric, it has continued to operate Balochistan through the military, abduct Baloch activists without trial and by giving patronage to loyalist tribal chiefs.
This method of dealing with Balochistan can be traced to the colonial period. Just to cite one example, Nawab Sir Shahnaz Bugti, the grandfather of Nawab Akbar Bugti, received his sardari and a large tract of land for services to the British empire.
Despite democracy and the 18th amendment, key decisions in Balochistan continue to be made without popular support in the province. The most recent example is that only a few days after 20 labourers from Sindh and Punjab said to be working on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Turbat’s Gogdan area were killed by a Baloch separatist group, the federal government announced a unilateral decision that the Gwadar port was being given to China on a 40 year lease. When the Chinese president arrived a week later, the government confirmed that a separate armed force would be provided to ensure the “security” of CPEC corridor.
In a political climate where Baloch separatists staunchly oppose these projects and Baloch labour refuses to work on them, why are the province’s chief minister and other members of the parliament greeting these new infrastructural projects with open arms?
To understand this, one must return to the façade of the 2013 general election. The polls were held in the province under the military, results were delayed for weeks and rigging allegations were swept away as the Pasthun-dominated PkMAP and National Party emerged as the biggest parties in the Balochistan Assembly. With no one having a clear majority, it was the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that played a critical role in the decision to appoint Dr Malik as CM in a weak coalition. Despite this, it took four months after the elections for the ministries to be finalised.
The decision to appoint Dr Malik was cheered as a break from the political establishment’s strategy of ruling Balochistan through sardars. A glance at the leadership of Balochistan units of the PML-N, PPP and PML-Q is enough to note that this is still true. After the nationalist parties had decided to boycott the 2008 election, the 65 member Balochistan Assembly declared everyone a minister in the 2008-2013 assembly. The assembly was mostly made up of tribal chiefs that had been patronised by centre-based political parties.
History is an important marker for why the composition of the Baloch Assembly does not change. Balochistan only became a province in 1968. Its first elected government was made by the left wing National Awami Party (NAP). The party, which included Ataullah Mengal and Khair Baksh Marri, decided to pass a resolution against the sardari system in 1972. In the same year, the Bhutto-led Pakistan government dissolved the NAP government in Balochistan and announced a military operation.
It is critical to understand that the sardari system in Balochistan survived because of the wishes of the political establishment, not the wishes of the Baloch people.
The current Balochistan chief minister Dr Abdul Malik’s National Party emerged out of this context. However, its decision to reconcile with the Pakistani state without taking up key Baloch issues has been unpopular. In 2014, Dr Malik admitted that no progress had been made in terms of initiating talks with separatist Baloch leaders. With the kill-and-dump, on ground operation and unilateral development policy of the Pakistan government continuing, this was not possible.
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Dr Malik has been a sitting duck. Caught between separatists on one side and tribal sardars who are close to the establishment on the other, he is powerless to take any independent step.
This does not mean the Baloch separatists are having it their way. Only last year did fissures between parts of the movement emerge with the United Baloch Army and the Baloch Liberation Army engaging in infighting with each other. Moreover, the recent targeting of labour working on federal government projects in Balochistan reeks of both frustration and a degenerating moral code. In a recent interview, a senior Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) leader defended the killing of the Sindhi and Punjabi labourers working on the Gwadar highway project by calling them “state workers” on a “project that will underdevelop Balochistan”.
The argument misunderstands the task of liberation. The oppressed must fight the oppressor, not the oppressed. Punjabi and Sindhi labourers working in Balochistan do so out of desperation and not out of an ideological commitment to the projects they work on.
Recently, the Senate has critiqued the Pakistani state’s approach to Balochistan. After the military claimed that it had killed 13 BLF members, claims emerged that five of them were missing persons. The Senate has taken them seriously and ordered an inquiry into the matter. While the inquiry, like the one on the attempt on Hamid Mir’s life, will not see the light of day, it is this bravery that might allow reconciliation to be possible. Similarly, the attempt to curtail a talk on Balochistan at the Lahore University of Management Sciences had badly backfired, with the issue become more hotly discussed than ever.
For their part, Baloch separatists face a series of tough choices. Is the strategy, of targeting labourers working on projects they oppose, a sensible one? How will they reconcile their internal differences? How will they subvert the state patronage for the sardari system? Whether they see mainstreaming themselves as a more effective option than militancy?
The Kashmiri independence movement has recently taken to street protests instead of militancy as a relatively more successful strategy in making the issue global. Should the Baloch take a lead from them?
The Pakistani government faces even tougher choices if it wishes Balochistan to return to peace. The most important thing to recognise is that the grievances of the Baloch are real. Separatists are not just foreign-paid agents. They are popular, and their popularity increases due to the sheer disregard for the life of Baloch people that our state continues to demonstrate.
The fact that Kashmir continues to get a different treatment is not lost on the Baloch. The Pakistani Foreign Office called on the Indian government to “respect the genuine sentiments” of the Kashmiris after a Hurriyat leader raised a Pakistani flag in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Should the Pakistan government not respect the genuine sentiments of the Baloch people? Should it not wait before it decides to undertake billions of dollars worth of infrastructural projects in the province? Should it not make the effort to take the Baloch — all of them — on board before deciding what constitutes development? Should it not charge those who have continued the ‘kill-and-dump’ policy?
The fear is that neither the Baloch separatists nor the Pakistani government are willing to answer these questions. If this continues, the choices available will get starker.