The Baloch And The State: Conflict Of Perceptions
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The Baloch: A people without a state
"The Pakistan Army started military operations in Balochistan in 2001 to construct the cantonments and to have full control over the seaport of Gwader and routes connecting the Central Asian countries with those in South Asia. During this time, the clampdown in Balochistan has become serious. According to a January 2006 statement by Senator Sanaullah Baloch, at least 180 people have died in bombings, 122 children have been killed by paramilitary troops and hundreds of people have been arrested since the beginning of the campaign in early 2005.
On Dec 8, 2005, the federal interior minister stated that some 4,000 people had been arrested in Balochistan since the beginning of 2005. This was the report of the Asian Human Rights Commission on May 2, 2006. Two years later, in its statement of May 6, 2008, the AHRC states: "Of all of the country's provinces, Balochistan was the worst hit by the violence perpetrated by the armed forces, including the Army and Air Force. Since 2001 hundreds of people have been killed in aerial bombardments which allegedly utilised American-made and -supplied F16 fighter-bombers. At the same time the land forces displaced thousands of people in order to construct their cantonments and for the land of the Gwader Port Project. The political and nationalist forces are claiming that at least 4,000 persons are missing after arrests and 200,000 persons have been displaced due to military action."
These statistics give us just a hint of what lies behind the inconsolable sense of deprivation and victimisation amongst the Baloch of Pakistan.
The apology tendered by the PPP government to the people of Balochistan on behalf of the people of Pakistan for the atrocities and injustices committed against them and the assurance of a future relationship based upon 'healing and mutual respect' was welcomed by all. Subsequent steps taken by the government such as withdrawal of cases against political leaders and activists which led to the release of Nawab Bugti's grandson and, more recently, of Akhtar Mengal, are sure to strike the right chord with the Baloch.
However, understandably, Baloch leaders feel that while these measures are certainly a good beginning, much more needs to be done in order to repair the damaged relationship between the state and this aggrieved province. In order to find a longstanding solution to the Baloch problem, the government must address the core issues which are fuelling ethnic consciousness amongst the Baloch and are creating tension between them and the state.
Two such issues are: 1) Conflicting views on ethnicity between the state and the Baloch and 2) lack of provincial autonomy and development projects undermining the Baloch's control in their own province. .
In the 60-odd years of its existence, one of Pakistan's biggest failing has been its inability to formulate a national identity. While India has embraced the ethnic and cultural diversity of its states and has presented its national identity as a kaleidoscope of colours and rituals, ethnicities and cultures; a place where the modern and the traditional confluence and are equally celebrated. Pakistan has eyed ethnic diversity with suspicion
India understood a long time ago that for the purpose of its stability it is a political necessity for it to accommodate cultural and ethnic diversity, as opposed to forcibly enforcing a unifying agenda. Pakistan too must understand this crucial concept and realise that the Pakistani state's perception of ethnicity is an important variable in determining the federal government's relations with the province of Balochistan.
Since the independence of Pakistan, Balochistan and the NWFP suffered several obstacles in their integration into the state of Pakistan. While the separation of Bangladesh proved to be the biggest challenge to the process of national integration until 1971, Balochistan is arguably the second-most contentious issue.
"From its nascent years, Pakistani state struggled with the idea of incorporating its various ethnic groups in the process of state building. Instead of embracing ethnic diversity, Pakistan ignored the social and economic diversity within its regions. The ruling elites felt that the only way to preserve Pakistan from the growing forces of regionalism was to incorporate a centralised system of governance. As a consequence, any regional demands were viewed as being anti-state and a threat to the stability of Pakistan." (Ganguly, 1998).
The federal government never accepted the existence of Baloch nationalism and the Baloch's claims to history dating back two thousand years. The desire for the Baloch to establish their autonomy clashed with the aims of the Pakistani government, which sought to obliterate tribal identities and reduce the power of the tribal chiefs. Members of privileged ethnic groups, such as the Punjabis in Pakistan, denounce ethnic claims as parochial and narrow, and instead lay claims to a larger construct of identity, such as the "brotherhood of Islam" in an attempt to de-legitimise ethnic demands. (Alavi, 1989 in Alavi and Harris)
In the alleged process of assimilating the Baloch within the Pakistani state, successive governments have, since partition, come into direct conflict with Baloch nationalists, most recently during Pervez Musharaf's regime, where in his usual recklessness he employed heavy-handed military action against the people of Balochistan. The state denigrated provincial and regional identities as being created by "nefarious and surrogate elements" and as a result failed to incorporate them into mainstream political life. (Malik, 1997)
The new government has very sensibly recognised that military action against your own people often does more harm than good, and a far better option is to open dialogue, understand the Baloch perspective and then address their grievances.
Historically, the Baloch have felt marginalised and neglected by the state. They feel that they have been treated as an internal colony of the federal government, rather than being an equal and important part of the state. Underlying these sentiments is the idea is that the dominant Punjabi ethnic group is exploiting the Baloch of their resources for their own developmental purposes. Increasing divergence in the rate of economic growth between the two provinces has strengthened that belief. These feelings of internal colonisation and relative deprivation have shaped a lot of ethnic resentments of the Baloch against the central government, more specifically against Punjabis and the military bureaucracy which is also dominated by Punjabis. Within the Pakistan Army, the Punjabi and Pashtun representation is estimated at 87 percent to 95 percent, while their population composition is around 75 percent and the Baloch constitute only about 1.3 percent of the armed forces. Despite having an economically active workforce of over 24 percent against the national average of 22 percent, unemployment in the province stands at 33 percent against the national average of 20 percent. (Weaver, 2002)
While gas was first discovered in the province in 1953, supplies to parts of Punjab, like Multan and Rawalpindi, were made by 1964, while Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, received supply in 1986, while other areas such as Dera Bugti received their supplies as late as the nineties, and that too only after a military cantonment was established in the area.
In order to dispel this feeling of colonisation amongst the Baloch, the government must ensure a more equitable relationship between all provinces and revise its own perspective of ethnicity. Ethnicity must not be perceived as a threat to national integration and development, or as an obstacle which would hopefully be eliminated through the process of development. Ethnicity must be allowed to become one of the foundations upon which political identities are created. Otherwise, mismatch between ethnic identity and political identity will continue to cause problems that challenge the federation of Pakistan.
(To be continued)
The writer is a barrister and human rights activist currently based in the UAE. Email: