“IF Pakistan wants to treat us as a sovereign people, we are ready to extend our friendship. But if Pakistan does not do so and forces us to accept this fate, flying in the face of democratic principles, every Baloch will fight for his freedom.”These sentiments could have been expressed yesterday. But they weren’t. They date back some 65 years.
The prescient sentences come from a speech in the Kalat Assembly by a young Mir Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo. Not long afterwards, ignoring resolutions passed by the assembly, the Khan of Kalat — who had previously made the case that Balochistan deserved independent statehood on the Nepalese model — felt obliged, in the face of a military threat, to sign the instrument of accession to Pakistan in 1948.
In surveying the present controversy over Balochistan, thrust into the limelight by a barely relevant US congressional subcommittee hearing earlier this year, it is important to recall that its amalgamation into Pakistan bore little relation to the popular will.
The spirit of resistance is not a 21st-century phenomenon, nor does it stretch back only as far as the 1970s, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s dismissal of a popularly elected provincial government led by Bizenjo and Sardar Ataullah Mengal sparked four years of guerilla warfare.
It is also difficult to ignore the fact that the present government’s supposed recipe for reconciliation is titled Aghaz-i-Huqooq-i-Balochistan, loosely translatable as the ‘Beginning of Balochistan’s Rights’. It’s a bit late for a beginning. Too much blood has stained the province’s rugged terrain in the interim. Worse still, the mutilated corpses of suspected political activists keep turning up far too frequently — a phenomenon that until recently attracted precious little attention in much of Pakistan’s mainstream media.
It is unlikely that the person designated to implement the Aghaz agenda, Rehman Malik, inspires a great deal more faith among Baloch nationalists than Z.A. Bhutto’s troublemaking interior minister Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan. Besides, while Islamabad’s efforts may be directed towards ostensibly desirable ends on the jobs and education front, they are peripheral to the core concerns of the nationalists — namely military and paramilitary operations, conducted with impunity — and therefore liable to be perceived as a meaningless sop.
It is not entirely surprising, meanwhile, that too much attention has been paid by proponents and detractors alike to the non-binding resolution moved in the US House of Representatives by the chairman of the oversights and investigations subcommittee, Dana Rohrabacher, on sovereignty on Balochistan. The extent of Rohrabacher’s familiarity with the territory is signified by the reported fact that he refers to it as “Balookistan”.
A former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher conceded in an interview to The Washington Post last month that he was an ardent supporter of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan when the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) was training anti-Soviet jihadists, but that he now views Pakistan as an enemy. “If people are being oppressed by a government that is also committing hostile acts against your country, it is logical to point that out,” he told the Post.
By the same token, presumably, if people are being oppressed by a government that worships Washington, it would be illogical to point that out.
The resolution, co-sponsored by two other Republican congressmen, appears to have been intended primarily to embarrass the Obama administration, whose representatives have been at pains to point out to Islamabad that the relatively meaningless move was not backed by the White House.
Not surprisingly, the attendant publicity has been embraced by many Baloch nationalists as a positive development. It would be unfortunate for them to harbour any illusions about the motivations of Rohrabacher and his ilk, however, let alone subscribe to the reported views of M. Hossein Bor, described in Dawn as “a Baloch nationalist scholar” who “assured the Americans that the Baloch were natural US allies and would like to share the Gwadar port with the United States”.
He also testified to human rights abuses in the province — as, more credibly, did Human Rights Watch’s Ali Dayan Hasan, who also pointed out the tragic fact that many of Balochistan’s non-Baloch residents live in fear of extremist violence.
The demographic changes in the province over the decades are yet another bone of contention — one that would acquire considerably more relevance were Baloch independence to become an imminent prospect.
Independence would also entail other complications, such as the fact that Baloch territory stretches into Iran and Afghanistan. That may not be much of an issue for the likes of Rohrabacher, who favours a partition of Afghanistan and presumably wouldn’t be averse to the dismemberment of Iran.
It’s worth noting, though, that Z.A. Bhutto’s hostility to Baloch nationalism was underscored by pressure from the Shah of Iran — and there is no indication that the views of the Islamist regime in Tehran substantially differ from those of the Shah in this respect.
A concerted drive for Baloch independence thus may well entail a regional conflict. Even if it didn’t, it would undoubtedly be a bloody affair — quite possible considerably bloodier than the deplorable status quo. After decades of struggle and repeated setbacks and betrayals, it would hardly be surprising were the Baloch to view any promises of autonomy with scepticism. It’s telling, though, that such concessions are not on the agenda.
The idea of an all-parties conference excites little enthusiasm. The first meaningful step towards some sort of a rapprochement would be the cessation of military operations: after all, Balochistan needs to be conciliated, not conquered. It is hardly likely though that the weak central government could achieve this even if it were so inclined.
The province’s feudal set-up is undoubtedly a matter for concern, although it must be noted that, more so than elsewhere in the country, components of the educated tribal elite have also been behind progressive impetuses. The existing relations of production will ultimately be superseded. For the moment, though, the Zardari system comes across as no less a barrier to progress than the sardari system.