The Balochistan quagmire: Where does the answer lie?


Nadeem Syed

QUETTA – If the 60-member provincial cabinet of mostly Baloch ministers, an all-powerful, multi-layered security apparatus and a sprawling bureaucracy of mostly Baloch people cannot come out with a healing touch for the troubled province, then “who can?” is the question agitating most Baloch minds, as the insurgency in Balochistan rumbles on with all its murky overtones, creating a rift between state institutions and the local population.

Add to this apathy the neglect shown by the federal government, which appears to have already forgotten Balochistan after showing little concern in its early days. Nobody from the Centre has time for the Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan package anymore, with most not knowing where the reforms package stands, let alone progress on its implementation. Interestingly, it seems all stakeholders engaged in Balochistan are engaged in a zero-sum game, having an axe to grind in keeping the existing volatile equation alive and making hay while the sun shines. The plot only thickens once the international factors come into play. We see all dirty tricks an espionage thriller has for readers, a bloody history, national interests, deceit and treachery; and live and let others die for personnel gains.

But the zero-sum game continues no matter how big a loser the Baloch turn out to be. We also have the presence of foreign spooks on Balochistan soil, which is of great importance to big powers strategically and its vast natural resources great enough to fetter the attention of others. No wonder, nobody is interested to get done with Balochistan’s problems or feel the urgency to untie the Gordian knot. The provincial government also lacks the mandate to reverse the bloody equation in Balochistan, the biggest province of Pakistan with ports and unbound mineral wealth.

The threat perception varies from one area to another. Narrative changes as visitors enter the Pashtun areas of Balochistan. Here the ideals and goals of Baloch nationalists have little acceptability. Here they are considered spoilers, wasting whatever little opportunity the province has for development. The Centre of gravity of the insurgency is mainly Baloch areas, about 20 districts, followed by nine districts where Pushtuns call the shots. Even provincial capital Quetta – where the Pastuns outnumber the natives and which usually appears normal with routine hustle and bustle – has its own share of problems, the lurking insecurity being the foremost. “Punjabi or other settlers need to cover their flanks here, they have to think twice before setting business in these areas,” an official at the Quetta deputy commissioner office said. The main cause of the insecurity is the insurgency haunting all those who inhabit this troubled province that has long history of instability. It was this factor that brought the nationalists and state institutions, led by military establishment, face to face. The long-term problem is the way this clash is creating a rift between the state institutions and tribal system, which the local population values deeply. The tribal chiefs and heads, especially of the Mengal, Marri and Bugti tribes, are making things difficult for security institutions.

The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), built around the Baloch Student Organisation (BSO), is a group of assorted left wing students in Quetta and other parts that lend their hands to nationalists by being their militant arm, queering the pitch for the security agencies by fanning the revolt, which otherwise has little chance of success. No wonder the disappearance of Baloch youth and activists – having extreme, ultra nationalist views being imposed on others through violent and non-violent means – has become a cause for concern for the locals. The nationalists played it smart by making their cause a collective one, making others believe them, much to the embarrassment of law enforcement agencies that get all the blame for the missing persons and dead bodies their families receive.

Already, haunted by the phenomenon of missing people, the Baloch population is almost oblivious to their bread and butter matters and other issues that need urgent attention to improve the quality of life. Life for an ordinary Baloch is hard. According to nationalists, a over 10,000 people have disappeared. However, Voice for Missing Person’s chief Nasrullah Baloch gave a moderate figure of between 1,000 and 12,000. But the provincial Home Department recently put the figure at 49, however, local journalists said the real figure could be around 2,000 and 2,500. Baloch nationalists alleged that the security agencies were behind all the disappearances and subsequent killing. The HRCP also pins the blame on security agencies.

These are the days of tit-for-tat response in Balochistan, if not carrot and stick, it seems. We see the security apparatus on the offensive, claiming to have beaten back the militants in four to five districts. The buzzword right now in Balochistan is “kill and dump operation”. So far, 169 bodies have been found of those gone missing, some in the recent past, while others as far back as when Musharraf launched a military operation in Balochistan. “Only four to five percent come out alive after surviving the brutalities at the hand of security agencies,” a senior journalist said. A senior politician, while giving his perspective on the operation “wipe out”, said: “The army came into action soon after the Baloch militants killed 10 Punjabis last August after verifying their identities from their ID carsds. The men later turned out to be security personnel. Since then, the kill and dump operation has continued.” Security and Frontier Constabulary personnel do not mince words while branding the dead as terrorists involved in anti-state activities. The allegation is partly backed by the Pashtun population. “Some seven to eight bodies have been found from Pisheen of late. They were all involved in terrorism,” said another local politician “Many nationalist groups are being supported by the military to bring grief to the ones fighting against the establishment,” he claimed, spilling the beans further.

Taking cues from the British Raj, the military is banking on the policy of divide and rule and throwing goodies at nationalists ready to play ball. And there is a good number of them, it has been learnt. Each time a person is kidnapped the whole tribal hierarchy gets the heat as the aggrieved family takes up the issue as high as possible, which in Balochistan’s case is the tribal head, minister or chief minister. It here the whole tribal values clash with the law-enforcement agencies.

“The main problem with Balochistan is that nobody respects the tribal leaders and their values. Giving them respect it is the only way to move ahead,” a local politician said. He said even ultra-nationalists like Marri and Mengal could be won provided authorities gave them respect. Can the military that has arrogated to itself the role of preserving national interests in the province turn its back on Balochistan, as demanded by nationalists and politicians alike?

Not in the near future probably, but it can definitely change its approach and rope in the provincial government, which is ultimately responsible for maintaining law and order. Most local politicians believe the ultimate solution lies with politicians who know the tribal values and how to deal with the monster from within. PPP senior leader and Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Muhammad Aslam Raisani probably is the man who knows the pulse of the general public.

He even knows the sentiments prevailing in non-Baloch areas. Knowing his limitations, he is going slow but steady and in an effective manner. Education seems to be his passion, as evident from his focus on the development of educational sector in his own constituency of Mastung district. He has already pumped over Rs 45 crore into the district for various welfare projects, with education being the top priority. “Development is his answer to the growing disaffection among people that forces them to take up arms. He is leading by example,” on of his colleagues said. In this dry and tense environment in Balochistan, humour is the only factor that keeps one sane. The chief minister probably knows that and cracks jokes every now and then to make headlines. “That is how he wriggles out of a tense situation that sometimes crops up in a cabinet meeting,” a senior official said.

And if giving respect to tribal values is the solution, there is hardly anyone who knows the art better than Raisani. More importantly, he is acceptable the political class around him, as he conducts himself like first among the others. “We support Raisani, not the PPP, and will continue the support even in the future” commented a cabinet colleague not from his party.

He is even acceptable to the other leaders of national stature. Recently, he persuaded PML-N top leaders, both Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, to show large-heartedness towards the smaller provinces in the future distribution of resources under the NFC Award. The formula later devised was quite the one pleaded by Balochistan. Now the financial managers of the province are upbeat about spending the extra resources on the well being of the Baloch people.

Human resource development, infrastructure and investment seem to be the priorities of Raisani’s provincial government. More importantly, he is convinced that militants will be defeated sooner or later, fighting it out among themselves. His conviction has some background, officials say. Given his vision for Balochistan – that its future is within Pakistan – and his political and tribal background with intimate relations with other tribes, even those that matter in the present scenario, Raisani should be given the mandate to lead from the front.

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