What next in Balochistan?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE situation in Balochistan is going from bad to worse. Every day the newspapers carry reports of rocket attacks by unknown people and shelling and firing by the security forces. The government has now openly declared that it will take recourse to force to restore law and order in the province. This is a dangerous approach because when the army decides to use military means, it inevitably turns a crisis into a do or die issue.

We have been through this before in 1971 when the army was at the helm in Islamabad and refused to sort out the constitutional crisis in East Pakistan through a political dialogue. Regrettably, a similar story is being repeated in Balochistan. As we have learnt from past experience, a military crackdown of the kind we see today will not resolve the problem in this turbulent province.

The sense of déjà vu is disturbing. The government appears to have reverted to its conventional approach that it had employed in 1971 and its old paranoia has also been revived. Now we once again have the government denying that army action is taking place in the province. Next we are told about the ‘miscreants’ firing rockets in Balochistan and the army declaring its firm resolve to allow no letup in its crackdown on the fraris (fugitives). There have also been allegations of a foreign hand (a euphemism for India) attempting to take advantage of the turmoil in the province.

It may be recalled that initially when the situation in Balochistan began to turn ugly towards the latter part of 2004, the government — at that time led by the interim prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain — had considered it wiser to tackle the issue politically. In September 2004, the Senate adopted a resolution for the constitution of a committee to “deal with Balochistan and inter-provincial harmony.” The terms of reference of the committee were “to examine the current situation in Balochistan and make recommendations thereon.” Headed by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the committee was formed on September 29, 2004, comprising 29 members — later, another nine were added. Twenty-six of these were senators and 12 of them will be retiring in March 2006 as per the lots drawn as required by the Constitution.

The committee was divided into two subcommittees, one led by Wasim Sajjad and the other by Mushahid Hussein Sayed. The first body was mandated to address the question of inter-provincial harmony, which was understood to be the provincial autonomy issue. Given its sensitive nature, the subcommittee initially could not reach a consensus.

In June it formulated its proposals which included the removal of 27 items from the concurrent list in order to reduce this list to 20 items with the view to it being abolished altogether. It was also suggested that the federal list should be restricted to some core function of the federation such as defence, security, foreign relations, federal finance, communication and inter-provincial harmony. The Council of Common Interest was to be put into operation and it was recommended that it should be made mandatory for the council to meet every six months so that it could play its role in promoting provincial autonomy. Nothing has come of these recommendations which call for a constitutional amendment taking all this into account.

The Mushahid subcommittee that had been asked to address the immediate crisis in the province proved to be more successful in drawing up its report, though it was rejected by the nationalist parties. It describes the socio-economic situation in Balochistan, especially its backwardness, that lies at the root of the discontent. It also reports honestly the point of view of the Baloch leaders.

For instance, one learns from the horse’s mouth that Balochistan is a resource-starved province. Its own revenue receipts equal only one month’s salary of 150,000 employees of the provincial government. Poverty level is 47 per cent in Balochistan which is much higher than the national average. The literacy ratio is 26.6 per cent (the female literacy rate is 15 per cent) which is much below the national average of 51 per cent.

From the section on “Views of the Political Parties” one learns of the grievances and demands of some of the parties which are generally not adequately ventilated in the media. The key issues on which resentment exists are the plan to establish new cantonments in the province and the army action taking place there, the mega projects that are in the hands of the federal government and that provide jobs to outsiders, allotment of land for these projects to people from outside the province, inadequate representation of the Baloch in the federal government, the move to amalgamate the levies (community police) with the police force, and insufficient income from gas royalties.

The Mushahid subcommittee has drawn up recommendations which seek to meet many of these grievances. Classified under five heads, it suggests:

Increase in gas royalty and surcharge; maximum representation to the province on the boards of the oil and gas companies operating in the province; implementation of the job quota of the Baloch; shifting of the Gwadar Port Authority head office to Balochistan; seven per cent of the gross port revenue to go to the province; training of local youth for jobs; probing of allotment of lands by a judicial body; construction of highways; announcement of NFC; taking of CBMs such as keeping the visibility of the armed forces low; not disbanding the levy forces; holding in abeyance the construction of cantonments at Gwadar, Dera Bugti and Kohlu; harnessing water resources; maintaining Baloch-Pakhtoon parity in every respect — in terms of population and the regions.

Although this report is a sensible one, it has not succeeded in easing the crisis. It seems the government was uncomfortable with the recommendations. Although the report should have been finalized within three months (before the given deadline of January 7), it was in May that the report was adopted by the committee and November 2005 — the date on the document — when it was published. Meanwhile, the political approach appeared to recede into the background and army action picked up momentum.

Will the recommendations of the subcommittee be actually implemented? Will they appease the nationalists and the militants? As it is the committee has soft-pedalled on some basic issues that lie at the heart of the Baloch discontent, namely the military’s presence and the outside control of resources. In March 2005 when the parliamentary committee was preparing the report it visited the troubled province and met many leaders. Since Dera Bugti was the theatre of operation then and Nawab Akbar Bugti is a key leader, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Mushahid Hussain met him and an agreement was reached between them. A monitoring team was set up to oversee the implementation of the accord, the Bugti-Sui road was to be reopened and the Frontier Corps pulled out of 15 trenches in Dera Bugti. Some of these measures were implemented, albeit temporarily, and now the army has reoccupied 45 trenches.

The parliamentary committee exists no more and the two sides are heading for a confrontation. The government forgets that it cannot adopt a similar approach vis-à-vis Balochistan as it did in 1971 in East Pakistan. What happened then could be concealed to a certain extent from the people of West Pakistan because of the geographical distance of the affected areas. That is not possible today. Balochistan shares common borders with the other provinces and the media is free today. There are independent civil society organizations which visit areas of conflict and report independently to expose the government’s false claims. The attack on the HRCP delegation’s motorcade on its way to Dera Bugti to investigate the situation shows how uncomfortable some elements can be if the truth is known.

The problem with the government’s approach is that its emphasis has shifted to the use of military force that will not resolve the problem. It has alienated the people of Balochistan and has paradoxically caused them to identify with their sardars, whose oppressive policies, exploitation and tyranny are legendary. They have lined up behind the sardars when confronting the army. The government believes that if it pumps money into the province for its development Islamabad will be able to win the hearts and minds of the people and thus sideline the sardars.

But what the Baloch want is control over their resources and not just funds for development. Thus the scams in the allocation of land in Gwadar — some of which were challenged in court — have created considerable unrest. By acquiring large tracts — the army has taken nearly 4,000 acres and the navy has asked for 50,000 acres — the armed forces have worsened the crisis.