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Balochistan: engagement or suppression?

The rough treatment meted out to peaceful families of Baloch missing persons by the Islamabad police has placed this and all the related issues regarding Balochistan centre-stage (once again), not the least because Pakistanis have woken up and responded to the role of women in these protests. By and large, Balochistan has been viewed as a backward tribal society. But this ‘frozen’ perception is clearly out of date. Education has spread throughout Balochistan in recent decades, contributing to the emergence of a significant middle class. The women, young and old, who have led the march from Turbat to Islamabad against the custodial killing of a young man, on the one hand, would be considered the natural takers up of the issue of their missing loved ones (men only), but on the other may come as a surprise to those in Pakistan still mired in the traditional view of Balochistan as a backward, undeveloped part of the country.

It is doubly unfortunate that first the caretaker government’s committee set up to deal with the arrests and rough treatment of the peaceful protestors obfuscated the whole issue to let the Islamabad administration and police off the hook. Then caretaker Prime Minister (PM) Anwaarul Haq Kakar whaled in with his two cents worth, part of which he repeated in a TV interview on January 7, 2024. If the Islamabad police inflicted wounds on the bodies of the peaceful protestors, not sparing even women or the elderly, the committee sprinkled the first batch of salt on those wounds, and whatever was left was delivered by the caretaker PM’s broadside. While arguing that the state could not tolerate armed rebellion, he failed to put the issue in any kind of context or perspective. The fact is that Balochistan has been restive ever since Pakistan came into being, first over the issue of accession to the new state versus the possibility of independence, later over the deprivation of the rights of the people of Balochistan, whether on the touchstone of control over and benefit from their natural resources or other democratic rights that have been conspicuous by their absence from day one. No people takes to armed struggle lightly or without reason. Kakar is either ignorant of the fact or has deliberately omitted any mention of the 25 years that separate the end of the fourth nationalist insurgency in Balochistan (1977) and the beginning of the fifth (2002). When he speaks fondly of Mir Ghaus Buksh Bizenjo as a close family friend, perhaps he should also have reflected on and voiced the fact that the Baloch people, when their armed struggle against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1973-77) imploded in the aftermath of his overthrow by General Ziaul Haq, bought into Bizenjo’s line of adhering to peaceful parliamentary politics in the struggle for their long denied rights. It is only when 25 years of this political path failed to move things even an inch that a new generation of Baloch youth took to the mountains once again to seek justice through the barrel of a gun when it was not available through any other means. The state during these 25 years continued playing its traditional games in denying the Baloch democratic representation, and through it, at least theoretically, their denied rights and redressal of their mounting grievances. I am not listing these in detail since they are well known, starting from the accession issue in 1947-48 to Sui gas being plundered to fuel the rest of the country’s development since 1952 without any meaningful share or compensation to the Baloch to the copper-gold treasure flowing to foreign companies without changing the lives of the locals where these mines are located or, indeed, Balochistan as a whole.

This history, when appended to the practice of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of young Baloch men suspected of being sympathetic to the fifth nationalist insurgency, has added more fuel to the fire of indignation burning brighter and fiercer than ever against the state’s blatant, long standing practices of brutal suppression. This indignation is now spreading beyond the expected protest in Quetta to other parts of Pakistan and even abroad. A missing person’s case attracted such a protest rally in London on January 7, 2024. When Kakar or any other representative of the state argues in favour of adherence to the law by even aggrieved people, why does he fail to extend that same principle even more forcefully to the approach and practices of the state’s institutions themselves? Are they above the law? A law unto themselves? Not answerable to anyone or any forum for their blatant breach of what our laws and Constitution lay down? If anything, in the case of Balochistan, all the state has ever done is failed to engage the alienated Baloch in a dialogue about their grievances, failed to redress these grievances, and relied wholly on force to suppress even their genuine, acceptable demands within the parameters of our Constitution and laws. Why then should we be surprised that each succeeding generation of the Baloch since 1947 has seen no way forward except to pick up the gun to fight for their rights?

Mr Kakar claims 90,000 innocent people have been killed in Balochistan. But he fails to indicate over what period, who these 90,000 victims are, who killed them and why. In the absence of any factual basis to the claim, Mr Kakar may forgive us our scepticism. Quoting this figure smacks more of a propaganda gambit than a verifiable fact. He also makes the incredible claim that there is no law to punish terrorists in Pakistan, citing the ‘fact’ that despite the loss of 90,000 lives, not even nine people have been convicted for such crimes. Perhaps he should have added that they might have been had they been presented in a court of law, not forcibly disappeared or extra-judicially killed. Are they too part of this 90,000 figure?

Caretaker PM Kakar owes his rise to services rendered to our establishment, first by creating the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and then having the satisfaction of seeing it crowned (by hook or by crook) as the Balochistan provincial government. But perhaps his elevation as caretaker PM promises to be his last hurrah. Unless Mr Kakar can pull one more rabbit out of his overflowing hat full of tricks.

Rashed Rahman, "Balochistan: engagement or suppression?," Business recorder. 2024-01-09.
Keywords: Political science , Provincial government , Social crises , Missing persons , Balochistan , Quetta , Pakistan , Ziaul Haq , Anwaarul Haq Kakar , Mir Ghaus Buksh Bizenjo , Zulfikar Ali Bhutto , 2024

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