“We’ve seen this before. They say sorry. Then the military operation intensifies. More deaths, more disappearances, more destruction. I wish they’d stop apologising. Whenever they do, it means something bad is brewing.” This is what a young Baloch writer said to me last year in the wake of President Zardari’s apology to the Baloch people. I was sceptical. Wait and see, he said.
The events that unfolded in Balochistan after the apology – a long list which includes an unabated series of abductions, disappearances, harassment, and torture of students and political workers; intensification of “security operations” in the eastern districts; deployment of the FC in Makkuran; the hair-raising treatment meted out to political leaders Ghulam Mohammad, Lala Munir, and Sher Mohammad (and months later also to Rasool Baksh Mengal) – proved the young Baloch right.
Many would jump in here to say: “But the package calls for an inquiry into their murders…” Yes, Aghaaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan – the name given to the recently-announced ‘package’ for Balochistan – does call for a judicial inquiry into the murders of the three Baloch leaders whose bodies were found thrown in the wilderness some miles from Turbat, mutilated beyond recognition, in April this year. But alas, in the package they messed up the names! (Instead of Sher Mohammad, the package mistakenly says ‘Munir Ahmed’). While the government may pass it off as a ‘typing mistake’, it is telling of the centre’s utter lack of familiarity – indeed its disconnect – with the Baloch context, their leaders and their aspirations.
Considering Pakistan’s unflattering record with regards to parliamentary committees, inquiry commissions and apologies, the government must have been cognisant that this ‘Balochistan package’ must make a break from history and that it must go beyond apologies and promises. Sadly, it does not do so. The language flits between ‘should’ and ‘will’ (with the former dominating), which belies that the ‘package’ is in fact a set of proposals made by individuals in the government rather than a series of measures being taken by the government. Why does the government need to ‘suggest’ or ‘urge’; why does it not act ? Either it does not want to act, or it cannot; and the truth is probably a mix of both.
The authors of the package argue that all issues must go through parliament before they can be implemented (hence the ‘proposal-like’ nature of the package). That is fair. But considering the history of broken promises, particularly in the Baloch context, the ‘package’ should have been announced only once the government was in a position to act on the committee’s proposals.
Let’s move to the content. A glaring flaw in the package – and one of the main reasons for its unanimous rejection by Baloch nationalists – is the refusal to declare or even propose a complete halt to military operations in the province, which is tantamount to ignoring the elephant in the room. Viewed from another angle, the suggestion that the role of “federal agencies” in Balochistan be “reviewed” and “all operations not related to the fight against terrorism” be stopped is at least an admission – coming forth for the first time from official quarters – that there are “operations” being conducted in Balochistan (even though the word ‘military’ is conspicuously absent). Considering that government and military officials have consistently denied the existence of military operations in Balochistan, this is an important, even if inadvertent, admission. However, linking military operations in Balochistan to “the fight against terrorism” or – as can be seen in other ambiguously phrased clauses of the package – continuing to brand the Baloch guerrillas as ‘terrorists’ will only inflame the Baloch and mislead the Pakistani public. The Baloch guerrillas and independence-seeking nationalists reflect popular sentiment: that is a fact that Islamabad must accept. This package shows that we are still in denial.
The language regarding the construction of new cantonments is similarly ambiguous and problematic. The new cantonments in Sui and Kohlu (only) will be ceased “for the time being” and already constructed ones will be handed over to the FC – a highly notorious force in Balochistan which must be withdrawn rather than strengthened if there is to be peace in the province. There is no mention of removing controversial military officials from the posts they have occupied since the Musharraf era. Instead of reducing the number of existing cantonments – which, according to a January 2007 report, include four mega-military cantonments, 52 paramilitary cantonments, five naval bases, and six missile-testing ranges – the package merely states that proposals for new cantonments not be formulated “except in frontier regions, wherever required.”
In some ways, the most disappointing feature of the package is the proposal of ‘constitutional amendments’ to determine the “scope, form, and quantum” of provincial autonomy. The 1973 Constitution – which provided for complete provincial autonomy within ten years of promulgation – does not require amendment, only implementation. Besides, increasing the province’s ‘share’ of revenues generated from its own resources will not resolve the centre-province conflict. It is time for the government to bite the bullet. It must accept that complete provincial autonomy is the minimum necessary step towards repairing decades-worth of damage and exploitation. Regardless of who accepts it and who rejects it, the government must implement it, no strings attached. Over time, this step will reap fruits. It is the only way the federation can work.
On the eve of the package’s announcement, I turned on the television in the hope of hearing some meaningful discussions on Balochistan. Instead, the anchors were merely pushing their Baloch guests to point out “something positive” about the package. If we want to ‘patch up’ with the Baloch, it is about time we stopped pushing them (besides, they’ve already been pushed to the wall). It is us – our state and our government and our people – who need to be pushed. We cannot allow our state to commit another Bangladesh in Balochistan. If we remain silent now – as we were then – the Baloch will be right in blaming us for their misery.
By Alia Amirali