When my Baloch classmate at Karachi University told me three years ago that he would boycott the school’s Independence Day celebrations, I was shocked. “We [Baloch] don’t hoist Pakistani flags anymore. Nor do we sing the national anthem,” he told me. Independence Day and cricket matches are the only occasions that bring the Pakistani nation together. So this was highly unusual.
It turned out the repudiation was my friend’s way of protesting the central government’s treatment of his homeland. There is a hostile anti-Pakistan movement in this troubled – and now, separatist – southwestern province 300 miles from the capital. A crisis is brewing. And the Government of Pakistan is on a knee-jerk defensive.
Balochistan has a history all Pakistanis should be ashamed of. It is an extremely underdeveloped part of the country, stricken by ethnic strife and still ruled by warring tribes. The province has been riddled with conflict since 1948, one year after Pakistan’s independence, and the capital has largely ignored or even exacerbated the rifts that drive the suffering. Now, 64 years later, the Baloch have had enough. There is a complete breakdown of law and order. The active separatist militia there is in no mood to reconcile, negotiate or bargain. Islamabad needs to realise that it is now running out of options – and fast.
Today, it is not just “miscreants” – a colonial term used by the British to decry the anti-imperialist movements in the sub-continent – who are belligerent. It’s the average Baloch that feels betrayed, deprived and antagonistic towards the indifferent and apathetic state of Pakistan.
And they have every reason to be. Islamabad routinely makes political deals with the warring sardars (tribal leaders) who continue to keep the province backward.
Even more frightening, young Balochi men are ‘going missing’. Conventional wisdom and testimonies from families in court indicate that these missing men are being abducted by state institutions – namely, the intelligence agencies. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken a suo motu notice against the disappearances. Occasionally, some of their bodies do turn up.
Roheela Bibi, a woman whose three sons had all gone missing, died of a heart attack in February this year because she could not bear the pain of this devastating mystery. But when her story inspired civil society across urban centers of the country to act, the central government reacted defensively – even asking Afghan president Hamid Karzai to take action against Baloch separatist camps in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesman Abdul Basit in his weekly press briefing ‘warned’ those countries that have given asylum to Baloch separatists, asking them to disscourage anti-Pakistan secessionist activities.
Pakistan is trying to save face in the international community by brushing away responsibility for the crisis. That is the problem, Islamabad, not the solution. Legislation and implementation of provincial autonomy for Balochistan may well be the only way to change this dangerous dynamic – an imperative Islamabad would ignore at its own peril. The province provides the entire country’s natural gas supply and produces 80 per cent of all minerals. Yet the Center continues to keep natural resource royalties to the minimum, or in some cases does not pay royalties at all. Finally, according to unofficial estimates, gas and copper in the region will not last for more than 20 years.
Pakistan must inject money into the province to prevent a catastrophe, not exhaust it of its resources. The country must integrate the marginalised people and institutions of the province into the mainstream national political system.
This is the answer to the conundrum. It always has been. Start – and most importantly, finish – development projects; provide incentives for business and economic activity; provide jobs; build new schools and reopen disrupted or damaged ones; and give the Baloch royalties for their gas supply. But so far, these moves seem difficult to implement – and not just for this elected government, but for every party or general in power since the creation of Pakistan.
Only when US congressman Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution in the US House of Representatives calling for the recognition of Baloch self-determination did the Pakistani government begin to respond to the crisis. The knee-jerk response to this sudden jolt of international pressure proves the state is guilty.
Something concrete needs to be done soon, so that women who have lost their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers can wipe their tears; so that children whose schools and homes were destroyed in insurgent attacks can begin their lives again; and so that Pakistani flags can be hoisted and the national anthem can be sung again.