November Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Except for some sensational news items, such as resistance to hoisting the Pakistan flag and playing the national anthem on August 14 or the killing of some prominent people, media coverage of Balochistan is sketchy, distorted and often misleading. It is only after spending a few days in the province and meeting a cross-section of the people that one can gauge the extent of the Baloch people’s, especially the youth’s, bitterness towards and their alienation from Pakistan.

The young Baloch are not afraid of speaking their mind. They seize every available opportunity at any forum to vent their grievances.

A meeting between human-rights activists and political workers, concerned citizens and students was arranged in Kalat. A young man gets up and narrates the history of the denial of Balochistan’s rights, the killing of Baloch leaders, the enforced disappearance of women, the indifference of Pakistan’s political parties and civil society organisations, and the end of his people’s hopes and patience. Nothing less than independence will satisfy him. For that, he is ready to die because “my life is not more precious than Shaheed Akbar Bugti’s or Balach Marri’s.” If anybody wishes to help, they should persuade the United Nations to facilitate the realisation of the Baloch’s rights, he added.

The young women in a gathering convened in Quetta to discuss involuntary disappearances are equally adept in taking the floor before anybody else can, and speak with an even greater passion than the young man in Kalat. Their lament follows the pattern adopted by almost all Baloch protesters and is obviously well-rehearsed. In a shrill voice that reveals more anger than grief, one of the young women berates the authorities for the enforced disappearance of 9,000 Baloch, including several hundred women. Any suggestion for the documentation of the 9,000 cases or any remark that the number of the missing people appears to be inflated, only invites a chorus of protest. The final word here, too, is a plea for UN intervention.

Any attempt to seek elaboration of the slogan of independence is firmly rejected. A casual remark that independence may not immediately solve the people’s problems is greeted with indignation not only by the youth but also by a prominent lawyer. One can recall having met such young persons earlier, but in the past they constituted a tiny group. Now their numbers have increased manifold and they have acquired greater confidence. Further, a dialogue with the thoroughly alienated Baloch has become extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Wherever one goes and whomever one meets, the narration of Balochistan’s plight continues. What young Baloch boys and girls say is repeated by their senior leaders, albeit in milder tones. There are politicians of considerable standing who do not agree with the young activists, who are unhappy about the splintering of the Baloch nationalist forces into factions, but they are afraid of expressing their reservations and misgivings in public.

A significant factor in the Baloch youth’s alienation has been their memory of what they perceive as a treacherous betrayal of their trust, beginning with the story of the Kalat state’s “annexation” — their word for ‘accession to Pakistan.’ What rankles their hearts more than anything else is the killing of their heroes — the hanging of Sardar Nauroz Khan’s sons and the killing of Balach Marri and Nawab Akbar Bugti. Instead of being assured that such killings have become history, every now and then they are offered fresh evidence that the process has not ended. The manner in which the three Baloch leaders (Ghulam Mohammad, Sher Mohammad and Munir Baloch) were killed and their bodies mutilated earlier this year, and the recent murder of Abdur Rasool Mengal, will keep the Baloch people’s wounds fresh for many years.

But perhaps the single greatest cause of Baloch anger is enforced disappearances. Over the last six years, hundreds (thousands, according to young Baloch men) of people have been picked up by men believed to be working for security/intelligence agencies. Some of the victims disappeared in 2004 and others recently. Fresh cases of enforced disappearance are reported almost every week. A very large number of people — parents, siblings and children of the disappearing persons — can be seen running from pillar to post, with photographs of victims and copies of petitions and letters they have been addressing to the various institutions, forums and associations.

“Now they are even picking up our women,” says an old engineer, in outrage. The nationalist circles insist that several hundred women have involuntarily disappeared and there are allegations that some of the detained women have been subjected to forced prostitution. Almost every person whose voice can be heard mentions the case of one Zarina Marri whose identity has not yet been established. The provincial chief minister denies her existence. But this is only one of the numerous instances which confirms that the Baloch nationalists believe what they want to believe and, the process of separating fact from fiction does not commend itself to most of them.

A serious issue of public concern in the Baloch territory is the spate of target killings. Some of these killings could be the outcome of personal feuds but in most cases, the settlers (mainly Punjabis) have been targeted. While serious Baloch leaders avoid identifying the culprits, the young zealots are not shy of owning responsibility for these killings and justifying them as “retaliation for the killing of our heroes.” These target killings have destabilised large sections of the population and caused an exodus of skilled and qualified people, from barbers and civil servants to highly-rated academics. The view that target killings and emigration of qualified people are harming the Baloch cause, as well as their day-to-day life, has few buyers.

If one looks away from the Baloch-dominated areas, only the details of the dirge change.

If the Baloch nationalists are alienated from the state of Pakistan, the Pakhtuns who claim to be half of Balochistan’s population are alienated from the provincial entity. While the Baloch have not reconciled themselves to Kalat’s merger with Pakistan, the Pakhtuns have not accepted the British Balochistan’s merger with the Balochistan states. They want the Pakhtun-dominated area’s separate existence and representation in parliament restored to the position maintained during 1947-54.

In addition, they have many complaints of discrimination in the allocation of resources, indifference to their needs for irrigation works and denial of social services. They do not deny the Taliban inroads into their territory nor do they conceal their antipathy to these intruders and their creed of violence. They deprecate target killings and hostility towards the settlers for, among other things, any disruption of normal life harms their business interests.

The minorities have their own tales of woe. The Hazara (Shia) community has suffered several hundred casualties over the past five years. Their grievance is that instead of protecting their lives and property, the administration protects the perpetrators of crimes against them. As the threat of Talibanisation of the area grows so do the apprehensions of the Hazara community, and for obvious reasons.

These anxieties are shared by the Hindu community, which is afraid that the tradition of tolerance that was once the hallmark of the Balochistan society may be coming to an end. They are concerned about the shrinking employment opportunities, kidnappings for ransom and the forced conversion of girls.

As many stories as there are tongues, one might say — and yet there is a broad agreement on blaming the central establishment for Balochistan’s drift towards anarchy and worse. There is a consensus on the huge harm caused by the security forces’ stranglehold over the province and the absence of government, especially regarding its benevolent functions (its coercive functions can be seen in a variety of situations, including the humiliation which the people are subjected to throughout the province, especially at security checkposts). Many people are not afraid of warning Islamabad of the consequences of the increase in Taliban influence in the Pakhtun area, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi’s activities in the Baloch areas and the emergence of the Jundullah force on the border with Iran .

Another point on which the Baloch have a consensus is a serious complaint that they have been abandoned not only by the Islamabad establishment but also by the political parties of other provinces. The latter may have occasionally condescended to sympathise with the Baloch, but they have never accepted Balochistan’s demands for justice and fair play as their own or national cause. Similar complaints are voiced against the media, though allowances are made for the constraints under which the mediapersons work.

A broad agreement is also visible in the rejection of the thesis that external forces are responsible for the unrest and insurgency in Balochistan. Many people concede that certain elements have received some (by no means substantial) help from outside the country but even they maintain that the problems in the province are of indigenous origin, that they are rooted in the region’s history, and that nothing will be gained by concentrating solely on the theme of foreign meddling.

The crisis in Balochistan is not a sudden precipitation; it is the result of six decades of betrayal of the Baloch people’s trust and contemptuous negation of their legitimate democratic aspirations. The federal authority has, time and again, been urged to stem Balochistan’s alienation. Among the recent warnings one may cite the Senate committee’s still-born proposals of 2005.

In 2006, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had pointed out the dangers of militarisation of the province, the lack of clarity and discipline in the working of the coastguards, the Frontier Corps and the civil armed forces, and the extra-democratic role of intelligence services.

In 2007, the International Crisis Group (ICG) declared that the crisis in Balochistan “is rooted in Islamabad’s unwillingness to cede political and economic autonomy to the resource-rich but most neglected and under-developed of Pakistan’s four federal provinces. Again, as in the past, the attempt to crush the insurgency is feeding Baloch alienation.”

The question on every Pakistani’s lips today is: has Balochistan reached the point of no return or is it still possible to revive its status as a willing unit of the federation of Pakistan? Most people in Quetta believe Islamabad has lost all possibilities of regaining Balochistan’s trust. This view amounts to acquiescence into a situation that will cause huge, perhaps unbearable, losses to both Islamabad and Balochistan, including bloodshed of unimaginable magnitude.

However slim the chances of reconciliation may be, that is the only course available to any concerned party. The solution of Balochistan’s problem lies in sincere and serious negotiations between Islamabad and the federating unit’s genuine representatives. But that is not possible until a climate conducive to a meaningful dialogue is created. This task itself will take time and some of the essential steps in that direction could be:

– A solemn affirmation by the federation that it accepts the Baloch people’s right to decide their political future and to ownership and control of their resources.

– Reduction of the military’s presence in Balochistan to the barest minimum level as warranted by external threats to security and a complete end to the military’s involvement with the civil administration.

– An end to all practices that denigrate the political beliefs and culture of the Balochistan’s communities.

– An end to the cruel sport of enforced disappearances and earnest efforts to ensure the earliest possible recovery and release of the disappeared people.

– Arrangements for the return of the IDPs to their homes and their rehabilitation.

– Suspension of the campaign of vilifying the nationalists, especially the young leaders that have been forced to live abroad.

– Guarantees of a level playing ground to all political forces and actors in a democratic election that may have to be held in Balochistan earlier than in other parts of the country.

I.A. Rehman was part of the HRCP delegation that visited Balochistan on a fact-finding mission in October.

Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.