Located at the heart of the world’s oil route and with 750 km of highly strategic Arabian Sea coastline, Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan, with the smallest number of people. Accounting for 44% of Pakistan’s landmass, this Texas-sized province constitutes merely 5% of the country’s total population. It is the least developed and the most impoverished province, where socio-economic realities paint a somber picture.
The province has been a hotbed of insurgency since the creation of Pakistan. The Baloch ethno-nationalist movement, which started in response to colonial encroachments and gradually thrived in post-colonial Pakistan in response to the highly centralized power structure of the country, poses a serious challenge to the integrity of Pakistan. Currently, an insurgency is underway that may have vast and diverse implications not only for Pakistan and other regional players but also for the global ‘war on terror’.
Though the movement has been striving for securing equal rights and achieving regional autonomy within a restructured federal framework, over the years separatist feelings have intensified, leading some elements to seek complete independence from Pakistan. Pakistan’s over-centralized state system, weak federal structure, unresponsive political institutions and lengthy dictatorial rule, all have given birth to feelings of alienation and marginalization among the Baloch. Protracted military rulers not only kept the Baloch at bay from participation in the political system but also frequently used force against them to curb their separatist tendencies. Successive military operations against the Baloch in 1948, 1958, 1974, and 2004 created an unbridgeable gap between the Baloch and Islamabad. An authoritarian political system (or lack of provincial autonomy), lack of infrastructural development, absence of socio-economic opportunities, bad governance and discriminatory economic policies have stoked feelings of deprivation among Baloch people, making them potential recruits for any guerilla struggle against Islamabad. In addition to Islamabad’s policy of neglect, the selfish and corrupt political elite of Balochistan, along with traditional authoritative sardars, are also responsible for the sorry state of affairs. On numerous occasions these tribal sardars had the chance to govern, but produced little change.
The current conflict, which started in 2004 as a result of the arbitrary policies of General Musharraf and culminated in the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti, is again a testimony to Islamabad’s flawed approach towards Balochistan. Bugti and other nationalists voiced their concerns regarding ‘mega projects’ in Balochistan announced by Musharraf’s government and vowed to stand up against any development launched without the approval of the Baloch. Not learning from the mistakes of his predecessors, Musharraf, instead of addressing Baloch grievances politically and through negotiations, adopted an aggressive posture that added fuel to the fire. By killing Bugti – one of those few sardars who voted to join Pakistan in 1947 and who favoured federation – Musharraf committed a great political blunder as the incident sparked an unprecedented wave of anti-Pakistan sentiments that provided great impetus to the Baloch insurgency and the nationalist cause. The new cadre of the Baloch nationalist youth is more rigid and radical in its approach. While Bugti was willing to negotiate with the federal government, his young and radical followers spurn dialogue and coexistence with the federation.
Bugti’s death, combined with the issue of missing persons in Balochistan, has resulted in the unfortunate target killings of settlers – mainly Punjabi workers and teachers – and attacks on government personnel, buildings and installations. The killing of Punjabi teachers, allegedly by Bloch insurgents, has not only caused substantial economic and political damage but has also caused great setbacks to the educational system in the province, already the worst in Pakistan. In the wake of targeted killings, a considerable number of qualified teachers, fearing for their safety, have either left the province or demanded their relocation to schools in Pashtun-dominated districts of Balochistan where the law and order situation is relatively better. Insurgents view schools as representatives of the Pakistani state and symbols of military oppression.
It is worth noting that the victims of target killings are people who settled in the province long ago and have almost integrated themselves into the socio-cultural, economic and political fabric of the province. These people have nothing to do with the state and its military establishment against whom the Baloch anger is directed and such killings have evoked condemnation from almost all the political forces in the province, including Sardar Attaullah Mengal, a veteran Baloch Nationalist leader, who in an interview with the BBC renounced the use of violence to achieve political goals.
The state’s response to the situation has been terrible. Security agencies, instead of improving the law and order situation and providing security to the settlers, have responded with abduction and extra-judicial killings of Baloch political workers and activists, deteriorating the situation further. In a recent and more worrying trend, mutilated and decomposed bodies of abducted Baloch youth and political activists have started turning up along roads in desolate places. Portraying an ‘extremely precarious’ picture of the situation in Balochistan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported that at least 140 bodies of missing persons have been found in the last 11 months and that there is credible evidence that security forces are involved. The commission also said that all the authority in the province seems to rest with the security forces, who enjoy complete impunity, whereas the civil administration, which is meant to represent the people, appears to have ceded its powers.
The PPP government was off to a positive start when it extended apologies to the Baloch people for past injustices, but it could do little more than make empty promises to resolve the issue. Nevertheless, the passing of the National Finance Commission Award and the abolition of the concurrent list through the 18th amendment were some commendable steps taken by the PPP government. The adoption of the 18th amendment was a great success in particular as it settled the issue of provincial autonomy to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. But these steps have done little to improve the situation in the province – the use of force continues to be the preferred approach in dealing with the insurgency. There has been little improvement in the lives of ordinary people. The provincial government is corrupt. Most importantly, it is subservient to military authorities in the province and, therefore, has no mandate to talk to the insurgents or the aggrieved nationalist leaders. The much-hyped Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan package has also been a disappointment as the government has only been able to implement 15 of its 61 proposals.
Given the grim situation, only a genuine attempt can bring an end to the turmoil. The government must focus on winning the hearts and minds of the traumatized Baloch masses. All possible efforts should be made to make the province’s disillusioned nationalist leaders a part of the mainstream political spectrum; the issue of missing persons should be solved on an urgent basis; and the security forces operating in the province should be brought under civilian control. Furthermore, the powers of the Senate should be enhanced to ensure the real essence of federalism while the concerns of the Baloch regarding their natural resources and the mega-projects must be addressed as well. A clear and comprehensive roadmap should be provided for the socio-economic development of the area before it is too late.