It happened in East Pakistan four decades ago, it is happening in Balochistan today: An emerging nationalism reaching ignition point, because of the failure to devolve power in time. The process leading up to it is sadly familiar. The people of a province were deprived of their political and economic rights for years within a national security-state paradigm. Consequently, a nationalist identity was mobilised by the oppressed for a struggle, fuelled by the narrative of grievances. The state then, and now, responded with brutal military power rather than swift political accommodation.
By its very nature, military action against the country’s own citizens involves characterising them as ‘traitors’, and agents of a ‘foreign conspiracy’. This ‘state against its enemies’ narrative reinforces the conflictual nationalist identity of the protagonist on the one hand and on the other, creates a paranoia within the dominant society that restricts the space for compromise by the state. Each side feeds off the actions and language of the other, in an escalating spiral of violence. At some point the suction of the fires within draw into the cauldron external powers who have their own political agendas.
The Baloch people have for too long been banished to the dark terrain of apathy within a national security state, which built cantonments and security outposts rather than schools, hospitals and check dams, to provide opportunities to the people. When they asserted their rights, they were repeatedly suppressed as some of their leaders were arrested or killed. Of course, the latest coercive action in Balochistan is not being conducted formally by the military but by the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, which are supposed to be in aid of the elected civilian government in Balochistan. In actual practice however it is reported that these organizations operate under the command and control of the GHQ. According to the latest HRCP report on Balochistan, “the security forces in Balochistan do not consider themselves answerable or accountable to the political government or judiciary…”.
The military action in Balochistan, involves extra judicial arrest, torture and killings. The same HRCP report finds that there “is strong evidence of involvement of the security forces in enforced disappearances and killings”. These events add fuel to the fire of rebellion which has now reached a point where Baloch leaders are publicly inviting the support of foreign countries. Brahmadagh Bugti, the chief of the Baloch Republican Party is reported to have “expressed support for any and all foreign intervention in the province whether it be by the US, NATO or India”.
It is in this context that it is possible to understand the resolution introduced by Congressman Dana Rohrbacher in the US House of Representatives earlier this month, that calls upon Pakistan to recognise the right of self-determination for the people of Balochistan. This move has quite appropriately invited a strong assertion of national sovereignty by Pakistan’s graceful and eloquent ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman. Of course the Obama administration has distanced itself from the resolution. Yet the fact that it was introduced, and the alacrity with which it was applauded by Bugti is indicative of the deepening crisis in Balochistan as it gets pulled into the vortex of the ‘Great Game’. In this regard three strategic features of Balochistan are relevant: (a) It has recently been discovered that Balochistan has the world’s largest deposits of copper, the world’s second largest deposits of gold, and as yet untapped deposits of gas and possibly oil. (b) This province is next door to Iran and its port overlooks the oil wealth of the Middle East. (c) Balochistan is key to the war against al Qaeda, and peace with the Taliban with the Quetta Shura being an important player in the game.
As I have been arguing in these columns, it is time now to set aside the national security state paradigm, and replace it with the democratic paradigm of human development and peace. The way the uprising in Balochistan is politically accommodated by Pakistan’s government will shape the future of the Pakistani state. It could also influence for better or for worse the politics of the region as much as global peace.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2012.