Balochistan is rightfully a matter of focus in our national discourse. Various options are being debated to reach an amicable win-win solution. Unfortunately, most of the options being floated are piecemeal, have parochial biases and are being prompted by interest groups. These vary from oversimplifications to doomsday scenarios. Realism is missing from most of the analyses. No wonder, the void is filled with narratives and counter-narratives raising more questions than answering.
The key issue is to identify as to where resides the political force in Balochistan? Who is a reliable, credible and influential dialogue partner whose satisfaction would mean satisfaction of the Baloch people at large? Claimant to this status are many; hereditary feudal-tribal chieftains, Provincial Assembly and government, separatist elements, non-separatist but the angry youth etc. In the absence of identifying the credible bargaining agent on behalf of the Baloch people, the federation would continue to remain besieged and its initiatives would continue to go down the drain.
Presently, the federation is under vicious blackmail by vulture-like entities; each of these not content with claiming proverbial “own pound of flesh”, but setting eye on the entire flesh. The nation has watched with dismay how very bold initiatives like NFC Award, Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan, 18th Amendment, phenomenal development funds through MPAs/provincial ministers and a number of political efforts in the form of committees and commissions have not been able to jump start the dysfunctional political process in Balochistan.
The policy of appeasement has not worked, as it has been misdirected and its benefits have been
hijacked by political middlemen; a common man of Balochistan is left high and dry. The government in the province consists of almost all political forces of the province, yet it is dysfunctional and least bothered about all that is happening right under its nose.
Moreover, there is a need to assess the gravity of foreign influences/interference; and employ appropriate diplomatic tools to rollback its effects. To start with, “Hands off Balochistan” should be part of the terms of reference on which the new engagement is being envisaged with America. Likewise, diplomacy should be employed to restrain others from interfering in Balochistan on America’s behest or in solo pursuits.
Against this backdrop, the National Defence University made a commendable effort by organising a two-day workshop under the caption ‘Balochistan situation: perceptions and realities - the way forward’. It was a well attended and well represented event. Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf articulated his assessment of the ground realities and what our response should be to tackle the sensitive situation in Balochistan. He extended an olive branch to the estranged people and also showed firmness in declaring that there could be no talks with those who disrespect Pakistan’s flag. He also spoke about foreign interference. He said: “We will not talk to those who are against Pakistan’s sovereignty and who burn its flag.......The people of Pakistan will go an extra mile to redress the grievances of the people of Balochistan.......What we want to achieve is actually winning the hearts of our brothers through a solemn and dedicated commitment for their socioeconomic uplift.”
He praised the army and the FC for “promoting and protecting national interests in Balochistan.” He said that in addition to generating economic activities, the armed forces have opened a number of public schools and cadet colleges in remote areas of the province; “there is not one, but many fronts on which we need to fight for the cause of the people of Balochistan.” While directly addressing the angry youngmen involved in negative activities within the country and abroad, he said: “The entire Pakistan is yours, come and talk to your own government. You will not be disappointed.” It is reassuring that the Prime Minister had complete understanding of the problem. He was certainly at his best when he departed from the written text. He indeed spoke his heart out.
Most of the speakers of the workshop were from Balochistan. Unfortunately, a majority of them, especially the older ones, could not come out of their respective parochial shells; the attitude was of passing the buck, rather than owning the responsibility and accepting the challenge of resolving the issue. Yet, there were speakers and participants from Balochistan who felt its pain and had the urge to outsmart the actors responsible for the prevailing situation. These were middle level tribal elders, commoners; students, journalists, lawyers, officials, cutting across ethnic, sectarian and tribal identities; indeed, they represented the real Balochistan.
The Balochistan issue is a complex one, even if we minus the foreign interference from the setting. Going through the fifth spell of insurgency, the province warrants an innovative solution beyond patch works. The vastness of area and scarcity of communication make most of the interior Balochistan inaccessible, and hence unmanageable. The resistance by tribal chiefs to enhancing and improving communication infrastructure is all well known.
The alternative option is creating five to six sub-provinces through a constitutional process, coupled with a bicameral legislature at provincial level. The upper house may be called the house of elders having hereditary representation by all titleholders. Though theoretically, there is no “sardari” system; but in practice, it continues to reign with all its good and bad traditions. Acknowledgement of this reality would help in reaching a more practicable solution. At the same time, provincial bureaucracy needs to be revamped and kick-started to play its role and be accountable for all development projects in the province.
Unfortunately, the media has been playing a negative role. Instead of promoting harmony and unity, it has been over-projecting the secessionists. It has, indeed, been eroding the national integrity in its quest for cashing on hype and frenzy. This needs a media-led, self-regulated, course correction.
Though, only a handful of elements are engaged in subversive activities and in challenging the writ of the state, yet they have generated a sense of insecurity among the masses. Though separatists are few in number, their voice is echoing in Western capitals. Their strategy is superb; they have diverted the public hatred towards the law enforcement agencies. And under this smoke screen, they are able to carry out brutal crimes with impunity, and yet enjoy the comfort of public sympathy.
The Baloch issue is a serious one, but it is certainly not beyond us. It is neither a lost cause, nor it is close to a point of no return. What we need is ownership of the problem and an honest and concerted effort to resolve it. Mere putting across a verbal message and setting up committees and commissions has neither worked in the past, nor would it work now. Probably, predecessors of Prime Minister Raja also fully understood the gravity of the issue. The nation is looking for a premier who could go beyond rhetoric and walk the talk.
The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.