The US Congressional hearing on Balochistan in Washington DC on February 9 should be a wake-up call for the centre to correct its current policies towards the province. In the past, the country’s ethnically dominant civil-military establishment failed to maintain control over East Pakistan through the use of weapons and we all know what happened as a result of that. Now, most regrettably, the same disastrous prescription is being applied to Balochistan.
Of course, the elite of Pakistan — and I include the liberal intellectuals in this — do not seem to take the possibility of the province going its own way too seriously. They always seem to take the argument of geography, saying that East Pakistan was geographically separated from the western wing and since that is not the case with Balochistan, any separation would be a figment of someone’s colourful imagination.
In the relatively short span of six years, due to Islamabad’s hawkish approach, the demand of the Baloch shifted from one of greater autonomy and self-rule, to wholesale withdrawal from the federation. Instead of realising that policies undertaken by Islamabad are to blame for the current impasse, many people outside of the province tend to shift responsibility to actors within it. This is a flawed approach and will make an already bad situation even worse.
The current tension between the people of Balochistan and the rest of Pakistan, especially the centre, are caused by growing socio-economic insecurities, and by the systematic discrimination and oppression of the local people of the province by a centre dominated by the country’s most populous province. The Baloch have, for many years now, been living a marginalised existence and now see no hope for improvement. So, from their viewpoint, they are only doing what anyone in their predicament would do, so that their future generations may have a chance for living a peaceful and prosperous life.
Many modern states swiftly address these grievances through political and institutional restructuring of the system. This is done so that those who live in the region and are aggrieved, feel that they are part of the mainstream, and what they think and believe is important as far as the state’s overall agenda and policies are concerned. However, politically less conscious and ethnically dominant countries, impose violent and suppressive means to further subjugate oppressed ethnic groups and people.
An example of this can be found in Yugoslavia where the dominant Serb elite considered other ethnic groups as inferior and deprived them politically and economically. Serbian policy resulted in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts and ended up with the dismantling of the former Yugoslavia.
In the case of Balochistan, the despair present here is a result of a) persistent institutional oppression; b) never-ending exploitation; c) denial of politico-economic rights and d) increasing national (Baloch) insecurity in the existing state structure.
All this indicates a classical colonial relationship between Balochistan and the centre. The Baloch feel that they are living life at gunpoint, with their daily existence under threat because of the violence that has been going on in their province.
They feel that the centre’s policies aim to control their land for long-term strategic reasons and that this also has to do with the province’s wealth of natural and mineral resources. They also think that their historically-moderate social and cultural fabric is being attacked by forces supported by the establishment and that their underdevelopment is part of a deliberate policy to keep their region deprived.
Previously, protests in the province were ruthlessly suppressed as well. However, this time around, the establishment has to contend with rapidly changing geo-strategic realities, the presence of a loud and vibrant social media and a sizeable Baloch diaspora which is able to rally support overseas.
The only way forward is for the state to address this issue by taking into account historical, cultural, economic and political factors.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2012.