Baluchistan: Litmus Test for Musharraf

On Baluchistan, whatever its rhetoric, the military-led Centre initially moved on the right track. Political measures led its response which also included fortifying security of strategic assets in and around Sui. Now however the Center appears faltering in handling Baluchistan. The apparent fall-out of this faltering is evident. The Centre-Sui dialogue has been suspended. Instead sabotage has spread to various areas in Baluchistan. On February 7 Governor Owais Ghani the representative of the Centre in Baluchistan laid down the foundation of the Sui cantonment. The move was a symbolic assertion of State power in the troubled area. While this action is to signal that gas sources will be well-guarded, the communication and electricity supply networks including roads, railways tracks, telephone towers and grid stations continue to be targeted by rockets and bomb blasts. The capacity of security agencies in the vast expanse of Baluchistan, which covers more area than Punjab and Sind combined, would be severely tested.

In a continuously deteriorating security environment the politically resentful Baluchis would get even more resentful and alienated from the Centre. Gwadar and Saindak mining projects have become extremely controversial. Instead of major development efforts the Baluch interpret these as additional exploitation measures by the Punjab-dominated establishment with land and jobs being given to Pakistan’s non-Baluch population. They talk of millions of non-Baluch and non-Pathans pouring into Gwadar. What are the inevitabilities of development dynamics have become cause for anger because the Centre for decades has mismanaged the development of Baluchistan. A resource rich province is development-starved with a mainly impoverished population.

Meanwhile recent actions by the military-led Centre question the Centre’s commitment to genuine dialogue with the major Baluch Sardars and proactive policy moves over a reactive and adhoc response. Adhoc statements and missteps from Islamabad-Rawalpindi are beginning to overshadow what appeared to be the beginnings of systematically thought-through policy. The most ill-advised statement of course came from the military spokesman who claimed that Sardar Akbar Bugti, the main interlocutor in the ongoing Centre-Sui negotiations had long been ‘on the take’ from the Centre. The fact is that the latest round of seemingly unending rocket and bomb attacks began after the ISPR statement on Bugti. The onus of denying the already angry Baluch a provocation which he create conditions for new rounds of offensives rests on those the representatives of the State. The offensives may have come anyway but whether irresponsible statements or the delay of a credible inquiry into the gang rape of the lady doctor, are not provocations that they State must hand to the already angry Baluchis. There is sobriety and wisdom required of those who represent the State in currently handing the Baluchistan crisis. or unwarranted tough talking seeking peace.

Other than adhoc and provocative statements there also appears to have been no systematic follow-up to the December-January political initiatives including meetings between the Center’s parliamentary representative Chaudary Shujaat Hussain and the presidential representative Tariq Aziz with key Baluch leaders including Sardar Akbar Bugti, the work of the Parliamentary Committee on Baluchistan and the finalization of this bi-partisan Committee’s report.

His unwarranted remarks of hitting the Baluch militants in ways different from the seventies, notwithstanding general Parvez Musharraf personally supervised the Center’s response to the Baluchistan crisis. Around January 18 he issued instructions for immediate DNA test be conducted of the army captain accused of raping the lady doctor at Sui. He was positive about 95% of the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendation which believed could be implemented. In fact he was even planning to address the Nation on the Baluchistan issue immediately after Eid. .

The January 2 gang rape case of a lady doctor at the Pakistan Petroleum Limited Hospital at Sui, PPL has become a politically volatile issue. First the criminal mishandling of the case and now the procrastination on the inquiry of the case continues. Media reports suggest that
until February 7 the names of the accused have not been made public and the Defence Service Guards (DSG) at Sui who had been implicated in the case, had still not been questioned.

Government’s shortcomings in handling the Baluchistan situation notwithstanding in the contextual sense there is a positive environment in which the government will be tackling the Baluchistan crisis. In Pakistan the plus is that at the popular level these are potentially less volatile times. Unless the local political dynamic is infiltrated and hijacked by an external dynamic, there is widespread aggression and fighting fatigue. The impact of informed discourse in the independent media has been the ability of people to sift fact from fiction, reality from myth opening.

Some facts that would help to knock out myths would include enlisting the under-implementation development projects in a development-starved Baluchistan alongside the publication of the Parliamentary Committee’s recommendations addressing the Baluch resentments regarding the Gwador and Saindak projects; similarly enlisting the 1973 dismissal of an elected Marri-Mengal government by the an elected civilian government, the 1973 military operation in Baluchistan ordered by a civilian government and by contrast now a ruling party-opposition coalition government in power in the province; finally the military leadership’s support to the PML President’s dialogue initiative and subsequently to the recommendations of the Baluchistan Committee which addresses the decades old complaints the Baluch have had towards the Centre.

Significantly the ruling party’s president has also talked of amending the Constitution to implement the recommendations of the Committee; significantly the first ever discussion by a ruling party tof amending the Constitution for safeguarding the rights of the citizens of Pakistan.

These facts backed by credible statements and policy moves would help to snuff out the collective Baluch political anger. It would create space for objective understanding among the Baluch and narrow the gap between perceptional reality and the factual-reality. This narrowing of the gap provides a window of opportunity to begin undoing, through credible statements and policy moves, the prevailing consensus among the Pakistani Baluch that they will always get a rough deal from the Centre.

Every adversity, along with tragic calamity, often brings opportunity. So has the six month old Baluchistan crisis. The military-led Centre did take initial steps towards seizing this opportunity. Subsequently the Centre faltered. Somewhere civil-military coordination had weakened and signs of impatience within the military. The damage is still not irretrievable. It still is well placed to successfully address the genuine complaints of the Baluch, to establish the structures for economically and politically integrating the people of Baluchistan with the rest of Pakistan and to secure Pakistan’s and North-western borders through expanded placement of required State institutions.

Baluchistan crisis will prove to be the litmus test for general Musharraf. He justified back tracking on his commitment to vacate the COAS post because he believed that resolving Pakistan’s key chronic problems require that he command the army, the other State institutions and also the parliamentary system. With all three in his control Musharraf has the complete institutional authority over the Central and the provincial institutions currently operational in Baluchistan. Even the opposition parties like the PPP and MMA have not tried to generate any significant political pressure one the government over Baluchistan

The President decides the fate of the parliamentary Committee’s report. The onus therefore of taking immediate steps to turn around the anti-Centre political tide around in Baluchistan, rests squarely on the President’s shoulders. The Centre has to engage the Baluch nationalists at all costs. The army-led democracy in 2002 led to the marginalization of these nationalists were marginalized as the establishment’s Muslim League formed a coalition government with the MMA, then the establishment’s ‘friendly’ Opposition.

In preventing Baluchistan’s slide into anarchy speedy action is required. The president needs to take move immediately on three fronts. One, a transparent and fair trial of the rape case should be completed within less than a week. Two the Baluchistan Committee’s report should immediately be made public by the President of the Pakistan Muslim League. Third the president should address the nation on the issue of Baluchistan, announce the adoption of most of the parliamentary Committee’s recommendations, as the Constitutional embodiment of the State offer a peace dialogue to the Baluch nationalists and assure the people that the writ of the State will extend to all corners of the country. Time is of essence; the president needs to move now.