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Pakistan's Festering Wound - Balochistan

By Imtiaz Gul

The Express Tribune, January 28, 2010

Balochistan, today, is a politically fragmented, socially isolated and economically backward society. Over the years, political divisions along tribal and ethnic lines have necessitated unholy alliances and compelled the central government and the security apparatus to please everyone — evident from the fact that, at least, 60 of the 65 members of the Balochistan Assembly are either ministers or hold posts with an equivalent status.

At the root of the crisis is a history of denial of due socio-economic rights that gave birth to five Baloch insurgencies, coupled with a high-handed approach by the federal government and the military that has deeply scarred the Baloch soul. The accumulative impact of these factors, therefore, has been politically debilitating, socially disruptive and economically crippling. Several Baloch districts of the province are plagued by political and sectarian violence on the one hand, and crime on the other. It is essentially the Baloch nationalist movement, accompanied by the breakdown of law and order, because of which the Baloch pockets of the province in particular have descended into chaos, representing  a huge security challenge. A high-handed approach by the security forces, economic backwardness, poor governance and political patronage of criminal gangs accentuates this situation which Baloch nationalist forces fully exploit to their benefit. They tend to project almost every action by security forces as an ‘act of oppression against Balochi nationalists’ and this constitutes the in-vogue Baloch narrative.

Viewed against this backdrop, the law and order situation in Balochistan presented a bleak picture even during 2010. High-profile political murders of leaders such as Habib Jalib, target and sectarian killings and frequent shutter-down strikes to protest assassinations kept the province on the boil.

Official statistics reveal that as many as 316 people lost their lives in over 400 incidents of target and sectarian killing during 2010. Target killings were largely directed against Punjabi and Urdu-speaking settlers, including about 30 academics.

Police recorded about 900 cases of murder, some 113 offences against persons and property and 55 kidnappings for ransom, including the kidnapping of two nephews of former prime minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali.

Police officials claim that some 78 criminal groups are operating in Balochistan. Police have arrested more than 150 members of these groups.

Rocket attacks and bomb blasts at various locations registered about a 40 per cent decline. In politically-motivated sabotage acts, at least 135 oil tankers and containers carrying supplies for Nato troops in Afghanistan were set ablaze in nine different locations of Balochistan, killing as many as 34 drivers and their assistants.

Baloch political activists insist that thousands of Baloch nationalists are still missing, but a home department list names 57 people. That is why Governor Zulfiqar Magsi demanded, in the presence of Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, on January 3, that the matter be investigated in a way that sets aside speculation and satisfies the affected families.

Despite the precarious security scene, 2010 saw some movement on the issue of provincial rights, fiscal relief and alleviation of old grievances. As a follow-up of the 39-point Balochistan Package — called Aghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan Package — announced in November 2009, several steps were taken to assuage bruised Baloch egos.

The federal government, for instance, disbursed Rs297 billion rupees under the Benazir Income Support Programme. These disbursements also coincided with a poverty survey by the Population Census Organisation. Under the package, the federal government also promised to provide annual installments of Rs120 billion to settle the Rs800 billion it owes to Balochistan in Sui gas royalties. The federal government also wrote off Rs7.5 billion that Balochistan owed to the federal government.

Sincere implementation of the Balochistan package may take some sting out of this nationalist narrative, but the real test lies in a credible counternarrative that ensures equitable treatment of our Baloch countrymen. And for this, performance on ground, and not federalist rhetoric, counts more than anything else.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk