Addressing Baloch grievances

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

As the crisis in Balochistan deepens, frequent references have been made to the East Pakistan tragedy of 1971 and it is recalled how the army action there led to the break-up of the country.

Sardar Sherbaz Mazari, a veteran Baloch politician, said the other day that he didn’t want to sound bitter but he felt that the problems in Sui and Gwadar have made the people of Balochistan feel the same way as the people of East Pakistan felt in 1971. He was speaking at the launching ceremony of Brig A. R. Siddiqi’s book, East Pakistan: The End Game.

Another analogy drawn by the analysts is that the Baloch have been denied their share in political power as the Bengalis were in the fifties and the sixties and this is alienating them as it had alienated the Bengalis.

There is a lot of truth in these observations. But the fact is that Balochistan is a great deal more complicated than East Pakistan ever was and promises to be much more messy were it to take a turn for the worse.

First of all, the Bengalis were a highly developed people in terms of political consciousness and social awareness. They had participated in the freedom movement – gaining political experience in the process – had well organized and strongly entrenched political parties and a leadership with a substantial popular following.

The Awami League, the party representing the people of East Pakistan, won a massive vote in the 1970 polls. Socially, the East Pakistanis were very advanced, in some ways more than their compatriots in the western wing. Their literacy rate was higher and they were better educated than their countrymen in West Pakistan.

The rate of literacy in East Pakistan in the 1961 census was recorded as 23.8 per cent when it was only 16.4 in West Pakistan. The problem of East Pakistan was fundamentally one of the economic exploitation of the provincial resources and the exclusion of its people from the corridors of power.

True, this is also the problem of the Baloch. But the analogy ends there. While the Bengalis were highly developed – socially and culturally – the people of Balochistan have been kept in a state of backwardness, deprivation and illiteracy all these decades.

It was only in the seventies that democracy – albeit with all its imperfections as has been the wont in Pakistan – came to Balochistan which got an assembly for the first time.

Thereafter, the tribal leaders got a free hand to operate under the political system as the feudals did in other provinces. In spite of the abolition of the sardari system, the sardars remained entrenched in their position of power and pelf.

For the people, it has been exploitation all the way. Democracy has not brought them any benefits. Illiteracy is high, social services are poor and the standard of living is abysmal – most villages have no electricity or gas. Not that the sardars have been starved of funds.

As the head of a tribe, a sardar enjoys many perks and privileges. Take the case of Akbar Bugti who owns the land where the Sui gas fields are located. He is paid a handsome sum – anything between Rs 60 to Rs 120 million is anybody’s guess – by the PPL for the “use” of his land.

All this money has reportedly gone into his personal exchequer and has not been ploughed back into the land and the people to uplift them and improve the quality of their life.

The irony is that these are the leaders who claim to speak for their people although they have never tried to improve their lot in areas where their writ is absolute. In the absence of any other credible leadership, the sardars are accepted as the spokesmen of the Baloch – good or bad.

The alternative is no better. The political leaders, who are subservient to Islamabad and by virtue of that relationship hold office, exercise very little influence as they are seen as stooges of the federal government.

This situation is quite unlike that of East Pakistan in 1971. The Bengalis had a well developed political leadership which enjoyed the confidence of the people. Without a stable and structured representative leadership, the Baloch are worse off as there is no one to speak on their behalf.

The present situation where the sardars are locked in a grim battle with Islamabad amounts to the elephants fighting each other and the grass being trampled by them.

It is a pity that those at the helm have failed to use imaginative political and sensible economic approaches to find a way out of the quagmire. Neither has the leadership in Quetta tried to use its position and the funds made available to it to bring about socio-economic development of the people. For Islamabad, the simplest strategy appears to be a military one.

First, there was talk of army action. When there was a hue and cry against this – again East Pakistan was cited as an example of a study in failure – the government backed out and declared that it did not plan to use military force.

It was thereafter that the president and the prime minister began to speak of a dialogue with the Baloch leaders. But so far the talks that have been held with various Baloch leaders in Karachi and the all parties conference organized in Quetta have only helped to take attention away from what is happening on the ground in Balochistan itself.

After the rocket attacks on the gas purification plant in early January, the government has declared that it will protect the installations at Sui at any cost because they are state property and must be guarded against violence by the “miscreants”.

On this pretext, the government is clearing a belt of land around the gas fields and 1,500 people have been uprooted from their homes and moved five kilometres or so away from the installations.

It is also now known that a cantonment is being set up at Sui and a brigade is being stationed there. All this was preceded by a house-to-house search. Since the government chooses not to define such measures as military action, it is under the false belief that the situation is improving.

It is not. Were a full-fledged confrontation to break out between the two sides, there would be no avenue for conflict resolution. The sardars, who are not exactly the darlings of the people, would this time hardly find themselves in a position to speak on behalf of the people – a very dangerous situation.

The Balochistan conundrum cannot be resolved in a hurry. There are no quick fix solutions available. The government can help by avoiding the use of force so as not to provoke the Baloch any more.

It would also help if many of the facilities denied to the Baloch are extended to them to pacify them. But most important of all, Islamabad should allow an indigenous Baloch leadership, independent of the sardars to emerge.

Balochistan does have a minuscule middle class which has professionals and educated people in its ranks. Some of them are in politics too and have managed to get elected.

But they are sidelined when there is talk of a dialogue. It is time they were allowed to come forward and speak for their people. They do not have to be patronized as that would rob them of their credibility. But their way must not be blocked either.