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Balochistan’s troubled landscape


The discovery of the bullet-riddled bodies of 20 young men from Punjab within three days in Balochistan has evoked anger, condemnation, and calls for 'revenge', cleaving the ethnic divide in the country wider open. Now the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Saqib Nisar has taken suo motu notice and ordered the Inspector General of Police Balochistan and the Director General of the Federal Investigation Agency to submit a report within three days, underlining the steps being taken by the security forces in the province to curb such incidents. With due respect, the CJP should also perhaps spare a thought for the thousands of disappeared Baloch and the hundreds of tortured, bullet-riddled bodies dumped all over Balochistan over the years. There is anger and resentment on that side too, which arguably leads to such tragedies.

The death of innocents is always painful. But while we offer condolences to the families of the recently deceased, let us pause for a moment to reflect on the manner in which the dead persons are being lauded by the state authorities. Recovering the bodies and delivering them to their dear ones for burial is the appropriate thing to do. But draping their coffins in the national flag, almost as though they were shaheeds (martyrs) in some noble national cause forgets that they were breaking the law of the land in seeking to emigrate illegally to Europe via Iran. The sole survivor of the killings has returned home without any sign that any action under the law is contemplated against him. All this of course follows if one has made up one's mind that they were indeed illegal would-be immigrants and not the workers of the Frontier Works Organisation working on CPEC projects as asserted by the nationalist insurgent organisation the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) of Dr Allah Nazar, which claimed the killing of at least the first batch of 15 killed. Subsequently, the evidence suggests that they were indeed nothing but would-be illegal immigrants.

Human trafficking of poor young men from some districts of Punjab to greener climes via illegal border crossing is rife. The pressures of unemployment or lowly paid employment, vistas of visible prosperity of those lucky enough to have made it abroad, the wiles and lures of unscrupulous human smugglers whose conviction rate is so abysmal as to be sneezed at, all combine to fill the ranks of this 'underground railroad'. However, as this and earlier incidents indicate, the path through the troubled province of Balochistan is not free of risk.

The state and the Balochistan government's narrative revolves around the allegation that the nationalist insurgency is a purely India-backed and -funded movement intended to damage the CPEC project. The Balochistan government in particular has lately taken to conflating nationalist insurgent violence and equating it to the terrorist activities of Mulla Fazlullah of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The distinction, however, between the two is both stark and necessary to understand. Whereas the TTP is a fanatical homegrown outgrowth of the tribes of FATA hosting first the Afghan Mujahideen and later the Afghan Taliban over the last four decades and represents a millennial aspiration to return to the glorious past of Muslim power (in the Islamic State vocabulary, the 'Caliphate'), the religious extremist nature and character of such movements and their indiscriminate use of terror renders any negotiated settlement with them impossible. They have to be fought with force. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has knocked them onto the back foot but not entirely eliminated them as they have fled across the Afghan border and found bases in the poorly policed area on both sides of the divide. From there, they mount sporadic attacks on the military and security forces guarding the border on our side.

The Baloch nationalist insurgency however, is a very different kettle of fish. This fifth insurgency in Balochistan since Independence started in 2002, sparked off at the time by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), led by their slain leader and son of the late Nawab Khair Buksh Marri, Balach Marri. Currently it is said to be under the control of his younger brother, Harbiyar Marri, who reportedly lives in exile in London.

Why has the youth of Balochistan take to arms virtually in every generation over the last 70 years? This is a long and sorry tale, but briefly, the problem began with the forced annexation of the tribal confederacy of Balochistan soon after Independence and resulted in nationalist resistance and insurgencies in 1948, 1958-62, 1962-69, 1973-77 and 2002 to date. Each time, the common thread was grievances of the Baloch centring on rights of self-determination, harsh treatment of dissidents, critics and rebels (including kidnappings, terrible tortures in internment camps and extrajudicial executions), resentment at poor and underdeveloped Balochistan's natural resources being siphoned off for the benefit of the state without adequate share, compensation or representation of the Baloch (e.g. Sui gas, gold, copper, minerals, etc), and now increasingly resentment at Balochistan's territory and Gwadar Port serving CPEC without any visible benefit to the locals. Even if one argues that the peculiar circumstances surrounding the Partition and Independence of the subcontinent produced the impatient mindset that rode roughshod over the aspirations for independence or autonomy of Balochistan, the treatment of its people ever since has culminated in the demand for separation today through the lengthy labyrinth of peaceful (and parliamentary) struggles for rights, due representation, a just share in the resources of the province and redressal of the approach that sees only the knout and the bayonet as the solution to Balochistan's troubles.

The difference therefore, between the terrorism of the TTP and the struggle of the Baloch people for justice and rights is the difference between a fanatical, non-persuadable-by-rational-argument terrorist movement pure, and an armed guerrilla resistance that has a political agenda. Of course the latter errs when it kills innocent poor people caught up in the maelstrom of violence that afflicts the province. Neither does it do its just cause much good, nor does it reflect the necessary understanding on the part of the guerrillas that the poor people of Punjab are not the enemy. It is the ruling elite, in which admittedly the Punjabi ruling elite has an overwhelming share, that oppresses and exploits the ethnic groups and poor classes all over the country. If the BLF and other insurgent groups were to take a leaf out of the Vietnamese people's heroic struggle against first French colonialism and then US imperialism, in which they always distinguished between the people and state of the aggressor, they would advance their cause better and avoid their being simply dumped in the terrorist basket.

This difference between terrorism and guerrilla resistance suggests that the use of force approach, which has yielded the fifth insurgency to date, needs revisiting. If India is involved, for which there are loud allegations but so far little concrete proof or evidence, it is because our house is on fire. If we could find the wisdom and means to douse this fire within the four corners of the constitution and law, no outsider can make mischief in our internal affairs.

Precedents for resolving long running conflicts exist. In recent times, the almost six-decade-old Colombian guerrilla war has yielded to a peaceful political solution. All it needs is the requisite wisdom and political will. Sadly, both seem in short supply. The conflict in Balochistan therefore, is likely to drag on interminably and get bloodier, with the distinct possibility of taking an ethnic turn if these recent events discussed above are kept in mind. 


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