After coming to power in February 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party made promising moves for reconciliation with Balochistan. A military operation from 2002 had left the people of the province chafing against the federation of Pakistan. The alienation climbed new heights after the August 26, 2006 killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the face of the Baloch struggle for more provincial autonomy. Balochistan is the country’s largest province in geographical terms; it is richest in natural resources thanks to its gas and oil fields, but least developed and most poor. For decades, the Baloch have demanded greater control over provincial resources, a more generous share of the royalties from the federal government’s sales of the gas to other provinces, plus a larger slice of the national financial pie. The Musharraf regime’s heavy-handed military response to a low-level insurgency led to killings and disappearances of Baloch nationalist activists on an appalling scale. When the PPP took over, Asif Ali Zardari as the leader of the party sagaciously offered an “unconditional apology” and pledged to “embark on a new highway of healing and mutual respect.” But since then the government has done little to keep this pledge. Instead Baloch nationalists see the PPP government continuing with the Musharraf legacy — the killings and arrests have not stopped; political activists remain jailed; and, with the increase in the activities of Baloch militant outfits, a demand for the military’s withdrawal from the province has gone unheard.
A parliamentary committee recently made recommendations for improving Balochistan’s uneasy relationship with the federation. While Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has approved this package, the government needs a road map for its implementation. It is evident that no package for Balochistan can be implemented without military approval. A further complication is the presence of a large ethnic Pashtun population with demands of its own, while the existence of Taliban safe havens in and around the provincial capital Quetta has compounded the security situation. Baloch nationalists allege that the government is not serious about going after the Taliban in the province as they serve to undermine the nationalist cause. For its part, Islamabad alleges an ‘Indian hand’ in the troubles. Pakistan is yet to come up with any concrete evidence on this but externalising a more than three-decade-old problem can bring only limited returns. With a government committed to democratic rule, Pakistan will be best served if it comes up with bold measures to address the grievances of the Baloch people.