The conspiracy of silence over Balochistan is finally breaking but the alienation of the province runs too deep for any easy solutions.
If Pakistan manages to weather the crisis it is facing with the demand for an independent Balochistan gathering steam, the nation may have to thank an American for it. An American who is presently a dartboard for the political class and opinion makers of a country that has mostly turned a Nelson's eye to this festering province.
What Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher has succeeded in doing with his two interventions on Balochistan in the U.S. Congress is break the conspiracy of silence in Pakistan on its resource-rich but most backward, sparsely populated and largest province which makes up for 44 per cent of the country's land mass.
Despite the perennial violence, disappearances and the ‘kill-and-dump' phenomenon of mutilated bodies of the missing turning up along roadsides frequently, Balochistan has seldom been more than a footnote in mainstream discourse — in politics, the media and elsewhere. The Internet, which gave the Baloch a chance to tell the world what's going on in their land, has a limited reach in Pakistan because many of these websites and blogs have been blocked here.
Similar to 1971
In fact, the collective silence on Balochistan and the bid to paper over the sense of alienation felt by the Baloch have been likened to the narrative that prevailed in West Pakistan about its eastern flank ahead of the 1971 War. Through the war, people were told via mainstream media that Pakistan's victory over India was certain. Not just the media, even diplomats serving overseas were fed these lies by the Yahya Khan dispensation, according to retired diplomat Tariq Fatemi.
“A lot of media outlets are compelled to opt for a blackout of news from the conflict-stricken province because of pressure from the ‘higher authorities' who cite the ‘sensitivity' of the conflict vis-à-vis the national security paradigm as a serious concern,” maintains Malik Siraj Akbar, editor of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan's first online English newspaper. Mr. Akbar was recently granted asylum in the U.S. after threats to his life. Needless to say, The Baloch Hal is blocked in Pakistan.
Earlier this month, a section of the media was shamed into breaking this orchestrated silence after a shutdown of all Urdu channels by cable operators across the province. Sindhi, Pashto, Baloch and Brahui channels were spared by the boycott call given by a faction of the Baloch Students Organisation.
The floodgates opened a week later, first with the exclusive hearing held by the Rohrabacher-chaired U.S. House Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on Oversight and Investigations on human rights violations in Balochistan; and then, the resolution he introduced in Congress seeking the right of self-determination for the Baloch.
An incensed nation immediately saw Mr. Rohrabacher's twin moves as interference in its internal affairs and wondered why the U.S. was silent on the Kashmiris' demand for self-determination and human rights violations in the ‘Indian Held Kashmir.'
Suddenly Balochistan was trending — to use a social networking term — all over Pakistan's media. Now not a day goes by without at least a couple of talk shows on Balochistan. Newspapers seem incomplete without a few articles on the province. This may stop in the electronic media as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority has threatened action against the channels airing programmes featuring Baloch separatists.
How many withstand this diktat remains to be seen but anger over the American intervention has subsequently given way to some introspection as Baloch separatists living in exile made it clear that the time for sops was long gone and they would settle for nothing less than independence.
“What you read in the Pakistani newspapers and see on the television channels is barely the reflection of anti-Pakistan public sentiments prevailing in Balochistan. Pakistan has failed as a state to resolve issues which matter a lot more to the elite, such as the power crisis. No one is truly interested in Balochistan among the rulers. The politicians can't fix it and the soldiers can only worsen it.
“The real thing that merits attention is the issue of demands. Many Pakistanis still do not want to hear the real Baloch demands but the Baloch movement is not meant for provincial autonomy. There is a full fledged movement for Balochistan's independence taking place in the province. No matter what Pakistan provides them this time, it is not going to help.'' With these words, Mr. Akbar sums up what is being articulated by Baloch leaders from various locations. Such is their anger now that they don't mind being labelled Indian/American agents. In one television programme, Baloch Republican Party chief Barhamdagh Bugti's retort to a question on whether he would take India's help was: “Why only India? If satan offers help, we will take it.”
His is one of the many voices for separation being raised in the province. Although there is no data on how widespread the demand is, the separatists with their guns dominate the narrative as the ordinary Baloch is caught in the crossfire between them and the security forces. Given the frequency with which people are picked up, tortured and killed — the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report of June 2011 said tortured bodies of 140 missing persons turned up between July 2010 and May 2011 — more families were getting affected by this kill-and-dump practice.
Though the Bugtis were once pro-Pakistan, the murder of Akbar Bugti in 2006 and the public celebration of the killing by the Musharraf regime embittered them. As opposed to greater autonomy within the federation, the demand for independence began gaining traction and several Baloch parties withdrew from the parliamentary process. Conscious that the strategic location of the province will remain the bane of their existence even if they get independence, so bitter are they now that an uncertain future is preferred to remaining within the federation.
Most of them have refused to participate in the All Parties Conference (APC) that the Prime Minister is planning, and rejected the Interior Minister's offer to withdraw cases if they return from exile or their mountain hideouts as “hogwash.” When the government cannot get Frontier Corps — a military-headed paramilitary force — to remove one checkpost from the province, asked Federal Minister Israrullah Zehri, how can they withdraw cases?
Stating that the government's offer [to drop cases against Baloch leaders] was good, Mehmal Sarfraz wrote in The Daily Times: “But who is going to ensure the safety of Barhamdagh Bugti and Hyrbyair Marri once they are back? The problem is the government cannot save the Baloch leaders from the military. Let's not forget what happened to the Baloch leader Nawab Nauroz Khan. An oath taken on the Quran was violated by our military in his case.”
While mainstream political parties of the province are not for independence, Asad Rahman — who participated in the Baloch resistance movement in the 1970s — maintains that they have been silenced by repeated betrayals, atrocities and continued denial of rights to their resources.
A classic case is that of gas which was discovered at Sui in Dera Bugti in 1952. It was piped to all of Pakistan — foremost Punjab — from 1954 but Balochistan's capital Quetta got connected to the pipeline only in 1985, points out Mr. Rahman.
According to him, the genesis of the present resistance goes back to 2002 when Pervez Musharraf handed over the Saindak project in the Chagai desert — with a projected annual yield of 1,44,000 tonnes copper, 1.47 tonnes gold and 27.6 tonnes of silver for 80 years — to a Chinese company. While the company was allowed to keep 75 per cent of the profit, the federal government got the remaining 25 per cent, of which just two per cent went to the province.
The development of the Gawadar port near the Straits of Hormuz by the Chinese cemented the fear among the Baloch that through this, the Punjab-centric establishment would try to change the demographics of the province and turn them into a minority in their own land.
Now the charge against the Baloch is that they are targeting settlers from other parts of Pakistan but the natives counter that proxies of the security establishment are involved in these killings to justify their presence in the province. As proof, they cite instances when killers of settlers have been caught and handed over to the police only to be whisked away by intelligence agencies who have viewed the Baloch with suspicion from the very beginning for their reluctance to join Pakistan, resulting in four earlier rounds of insurgency.
But none of them lasted this long. And those resistance movements were not for independence but rights. Demand for secession is a bitter pill to swallow for any country, more so for a nation that has been seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan at phenomenal costs to itself to counter the Indian behemoth.
As always, “foreign hands” are being accused of destabilising Balochistan with the aim to Balkanise Pakistan. Challenging this, Alia Amirali, a researcher on the Baloch National Movement, wrote in The News: “Rhetoric of ‘foreign hands' has allowed for further militarization of Balochistan and given the military a licence to seal the province and make it a no-go zone where it can abduct, torture, kill and display bodies with impunity, extract Balochistan's resources under the barrel of a gun, use Balochistan territory to conduct nuclear tests … There is one thing, however, that the military in Balochistan does not control: the spirit of the Baloch people.”