The Failure in Balochistan
Days before the completion of President Asif Ali Zardari’s three years in office, Senator Lashkari Raisani, the former provincial president of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), disclosed that at least one senior leader among the disillusioned Baloch nationalists had reached out to him offering “unconditional reconciliation” with the government.
The nationalist leader, whose name Senator Raisani did not divulge, had formerly supported the ongoing insurgency and advocated the cause of an independent Balochistan. Now, he had reposed his absolute faith in the PPP’s reconciliation process, he claimed.
While Raisani, whose elder brother Aslam Raisani is the chief minister of Balochistan, asked the central government to support him in his interactions with Baloch nationalists, he also warned of a fallout if Islamabad did not respond encouragingly to the fresh overtures.
“I am going to talk to Prime Minister Gilani to seek his support for my discussions with the nationalists,” he said at a press conference in Quetta. But “if the federal government does not support our efforts to reconcile with Baloch leaders to restore peace in the province, then we will also be compelled to take to the hills,” he warned. It is a warning one hears frequently from Balochistan’s moderate politicians, showing they do have the option of joining or supporting the ongoing armed struggle against Islamabad for the province’s rights.
According to Senator Raisani, Interior Minister Rehaman Malik, who “threatens to use force in Balochistan but offers reconciliation in Sindh”, is an obstacle to the dialogue process. “When the Baloch express valid grievances against the federal government, Islamabad calls them traitors.”
Raisani said the federal government should avoid the mistakes it had committed in the 1950s and 1960s, when the enraged Baloch leaders were persecuted in spite of being promised absolute amnesty if they gave up arms and joined mainstream politics.
For a week, Senator Raisani dominated the Baloch political scene, made front-page headlines and became the subject of editorials of local and national media.
Chief Minister Raisani and some moderate Baloch nationalist parties welcomed these contacts.
Senator Abdul Malik Baloch, who is the president of the middle-class-dominated National Party (NP), said his party “cautiously cheered” Senator Raisani’s contacts with armed Baloch groups.
“It would be encouraging if Senator Raisani could serve as a bridge between the government and the Baloch nationalists,” said Dr Baloch, a former provincial education minister. “These contacts have to be taken seriously if the government is interested in bringing durable peace in Balochistan.”
Dr Baloch, whose NP has come under extraordinary pressure from hardliner Baloch youths to relinquish parliamentary politics and support what they call “Balochistan’s freedom struggle”, said if another opportunity of negotiating with the Baloch was lost because of lack of commitment, it may do irreversible damage.
The excitement over renewed contacts did not last longer than a week. Raisani did not reveal the name of the nationalist leader who had contacted him, and that led to speculation about the authenticity of his claim.
Political analysts concluded that Raisani was making “unsubstantiated claims” merely to improve the PPP’s continuously declining approval ratings in Balochistan where nationalistic and sectarian violence has witnessed an upsurge in the recent weeks.
On their part, the underground Baloch armed groups rejected Senator Raisani’s claims.
“If we did not agree to negotiate with the military establishment, why would we talk to Senator Raisani?” said Meerak Baloch, a spokesman for the banned Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). “It is sheer drama,” he said. “We know how powerless Mr Raisani is in front of the military establishment.”
Likewise, two other armed Baloch outfits, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), also publically ruled out the possibility of compromise or a covert deal with Islamabad on “anything less than independence”.
Did Senator Raisani lie to the nation and the media? Nobody knows. There is not an iota of evidence for the people of Balochistan to believe if such contacts actually ever took place. Nonetheless, it is understandable why PPP’s efforts to ease tensions in the gas-rich province have fizzled out.
“It is not as if the PPP did not take some bold initiatives in Balochistan given its own limited space in the country’s political culture where the military dominates the scene and aggressively monitors every development in the province from the lenses of national security,” says one political expert. “What is unfortunate for the PPP is the initiatives it has taken so far seem inadequate and insignificant. It needs to take big steps urgently if it wants to turn the tables.”
For instance, the PPP, soon after coming into power, released former Balochistan chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal, who had been imprisoned by the Pervez Musharraf government. The party also put together the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan Package and increased Balochistan’s share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award. These measures did not impress the Balcoh nationalists because of a chronic lack of implementation of most of the proposals and recommendations enshrined in the 2009 Balochistan Package.
What continued to upset the PPP efforts to improve relations with the Baloch was the civilian government’s inability to reproduce hundreds of disappeared people and stop their killing in custody. Besides hundreds of Baloch political leaders, activists, students, journalists and lawyers were killed during President Zardari’s stint. The civilian government oftentimes blames the ‘security establishment’ and ‘secret services’ for these atrocities over which it admits having no control.
“The PPP government did whatever it could to pamper an army of more than 50 ministers in the provincial government to minimise internal rebellion,” said a senior newspaper editor in Quetta. “What it failed to do was to grapple with the human rights issues, restrict the extra-constitutional role of the Frontier Crops (FC) and bring all Baloch armed groups to the negotiating table.”
President Asif Zardari has not even approached various Baloch political and tribal leaders currently living overseas in self-imposed exile.
Former chief minister Akhtar Mengal, the Khan of Kalt Suleman Dawood, nationalist leaders Hairbayar Marri, Bramdagh Bugti, Senator (r) Sanaullah Baloch and former leader of the opposition in the Balochistan Assembly Kachkol Ali Baloch are all in exile in Europe and the Middle East. Most of these important Baloch leaders have sought asylum overseas because they face persecution at home.
Reconciliation in Balochistan is not possible until key nationalist leaders are assured of complete safety if and when they return home, and offered a proportionate share in the decision-making process over the future of Balochistan.
This article originally appeared in The Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan’s first independent English weekly.