A misplaced effort

A misplaced effort

The cabinet committee charged with investigating the situation in Balochistan and submitting recommendations for a solution to the strife-torn province’s problems has made its first visit to Quetta.

Headed by Federal Defence Minister Naveed Qamar, the committee attempted to consult all stakeholders amongst the political forces in Balochistan. However, the response to its invitation for talks was, to put it politely, mixed, and more bluntly, without meaningful results. Part of the problem is that the committee kicked off its visit with the message from one of its members, Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, at the airport on landing that slogans being raised for the independence of the province “would not be tolerated”. Kaira’s argument was that the autonomy issue of the province has been resolved.

He said the federal government was serious about addressing the grievances of Balochistan as was evident from the apology for past excesses extended by President Asif Ali Zardari in his inaugural address to parliament after taking office, despite the fact that he was not personally responsible for those excesses. Kaira reiterated the steps the federal government had taken to eradicate the sense of deprivation of the people of the province by pointing to the NFC Award, the Aghaaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package, giving jobs to youth, etc. These statements, however, were unlikely to win over the estranged Baloch, even those who were willing, with all their reservations, to actually meet the committee.

The meetings with the JUI-F, BNP-Awami, PKMAP and JI yielded little, if anything. The National Party did not turn up. It stated later that there was no purchase in meeting toothless committees. The BNP-M had not been invited. In any case this party has stated that it will not meet with the federal authorities unless and until international guarantors are involved, a reflection of the state of mistrust. The JUI-F stated after its meeting that it had little hope of a solution.

In his press conference after the committee’s round of meetings and deliberations, Naveed Qamar at least conceded that all the steps taken so far may not be enough. The fact is that the sense of alienation in Balochistan is so complete that even talking to those nationalist parties willing to engage is unlikely to make much difference. And attempts to depreciate the standing of those engaged in insurgency in the mountains or leading the movement from abroad will certainly not help a solution either.

If the committee was making partially conciliatory noises in Quetta, the irrepressible Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik in Islamabad on the same day was still droning on about the ‘foreign hand’ in Balochistan’s troubles. If Pakistan’s history is anything to go by, attempts to lay everything at the door of foreign hands, thereby turning a blind eye to our own responsibility and culpability for trouble, has never worked in the past and is unlikely to now. If anything, such red herrings only make matters worse and widen the gulf between the two sides.

The elephant in the room that the government does not wish to recognise, and certainly not mention, is the role of the military, intelligence agencies and paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) in the province. The issue of missing persons has been laid at the door of the FC by none other than the Supreme Court. Without reigning in the security forces from pursuing their repressive policies, including the notorious kill and dump practices in the province, no progress may be possible. Second, without finding a credible channel to the guerillas in the mountains and the leadership abroad, such exercises as the one in Quetta will come to naught.

The real steps required to win back the alienated Baloch people are: withdraw the FC, account for the missing persons, identify and prosecute those responsible for the dumping of tortured bodies all over the province, provide due compensation to the families of those tortured and/or killed, and start a serious dialogue with those Kaira finds “intolerable”. The government may not like their separatist stance, but without finding ways to bring these forces to the negotiating table, nothing will change and the situation could conceivably produce a disaster for the country.