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Kalabagh, Balochistan and the larger problem by Nasim Zehra


The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst, and a fellow of the Harvard University Asia Centre

Pakistan ‘s year-end brought home our truths even more clearly. The piling up of internal conflicts — whether on how to deal with the ongoing Balochistan crisis, the construction of Kalabagh Dam, enforcing the expulsion of foreign students enrolled in madrassahs or the continuation of the Waziristan operation — all tell a story of political polarisation. The substance of these various issues has become secondary in an environment of heightened polarisation. The government believes in the correctness of its own positions on all these issues and hence its growing impatience, especially with the opposition’s criticism. General Pervez Musharraf is now trying the direct route on these issues. Bypassing the opposing politicians, he is going directly to the people.

The government’s approach to resolving Kalabagh has not been to take the matter to the political class, to the representatives of the people. They have been voted into power and therefore have to be engaged on matters of national importance. Instead, general Musharraf is directly talking to the people, laying before them the facts on the dam issue and urging them not to pay heed to strikes and protest calls.

A newspaper reports the rather strange comments made by the Information Minister. He is quoted as saying that the government will adopt a "bullet against bullet policy to deal with miscreants" that want to break up the country. In fact, he warned of the country being divided, the recurrence of a 1971-like situation, if the opposition to Kalabagh Dam continues.

Almost daily, a couple of ministers make the inane announcement that soon a date for the construction of Kalabagh Dam will be announced. With the current climate of polarisation persisting, such a move is unwarranted. On the dam, a wise policy at this point would be to simply begin work on the Bhasha Dam as soon as possible, announce the NFC Award, implement the 1991 Water Accord as immediate CBMs and also work towards improving the overall political climate in the country. Kalabagh can then be initiated.

Meanwhile, the Balochistan issue too appears to be getting more complicated. There the battle-lines are also getting more pronounced and not disappearing. Unless immediate work on the political track is initiated in the province, the situation will only get worse. The press is reporting growing anger and violence. The manner in which two FC men were killed point blank in the Khuzdar bazaar shows the vulnerability of all sides. The Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) has claimed responsibility while declaring that more of these attacks will take place if the FC does not stop killing innocent Baloch. Whoever might constitute and support the BLF, it’s a factor that cannot be ignored.

Increasingly, opposition senators from Balochistan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the press are telling stories of " human rights violations." They are complaining against continued attacks on Dera Bugti and in Kohlu. Ignoring diplomatic niceties, India too has said its bit to gain Baloch sympathy and to embarrass Pakistan. Meanwhile, the HRCP has warned that it will draw international attention to the Balochistan situation. Very soon we will see international human rights groups raising the issue. And if there is trouble they will not ignore it.

Balochistan does not call for a tit-for-tat action by the State. Admittedly the latest round of violence has begun after the Inspector-General of the FC was attacked. Bomb blasts targeting grid stations, power plants and supply lines have frequently occurred.

But while a degree of force may be required, the substance of the response should require a rapid rethink of how to tackle this latest round of a crisis that has long been brewing. The State apparatus no longer holds the classic monopoly over violence. It remains vulnerable to the violence of the angered. The anger has historic roots; its validity is not the issue. It is now widespread among the Baloch and is part of the political folklore with the deprived Baloch repeatedly wronged by the Centre. The Baloch and the sardars have scores to settle; but that will be an evolutionary process; not a quasi-revolutionary one patronised by a State which itself is party to another kind of conflict in Balochistan.

Opening too many fronts is never wise in any situation, least of all in politics and especially if you claim to be engaged in the politics of change and reform. Who are your allies in the reform process? The people? Which ones? The millions, who only link themselves to the political class of the country, with all that is ‘good, bad and ugly’ about that class. That is the class which has to be engaged with, for whom reform has to be made attractive. The Centre has to be made credible, the messenger advocating the reform process has to be credible and conciliatory. Battling is no political strategy, even if ‘truth’ and ‘national good’ is your ammunition and patriotism your battle gear. All this ammunition and battle gear in this context is now suspect.

There is also some wisdom in the cynicism that pervades our social and political scene. If on the one hand the public has had to deal with corrupt politicians it has also seen the lack of principled politics by those who have booted out the politicians. Political wheeling dealing, the breaking of promises, the changing of stated priorities etc, no matter what the justification, has left the average person distrusting all those linked to power.

While maintaining its forces, the Centre must reactivate the parliamentary Committee on Balochistan. The Committee’s leading members should take its 139-pages report and begin to publicly demonstrate that they are "fighting for the rights of the small provinces." Steps beyond report writing must be taken and the public, especially the people of Balochistan, must be kept informed of its work.

There is need to focus on taking practical steps to address the concerns of parties to the major conflicts that have surfaced within our country: the concern of the Sindhis and the people of the NWFP over Kalabagh Dam; the Baloch over the many issues raised in the Parliamentary Committee’s report, including the NFC award, royalty for gas, the management of PPL, the new cantonments, the concurrent list. Similarly, the concerns of the religious parties and the locals in Waziristan over the ongoing military operation must be addressed.

Nothing short of this will work. Asking people to shun agitation may work in the Punjab but not elsewhere. In fact, the sense of victimisation continues and the affirmative action taken by the Centre on the allocation of development funds etc has not translated into goodwill for Islamabad. It is so because these positives steps have not been backed by positive politics. Politics of engagement requires the more powerful of the two parties to opt for engagement, for negotiation. Such is the politics of the visionary and of the wise. Combative politics is reactive politics; destined to alienate not end alienation.

The politics of engagement needs to be accompanied by additional steps that would address the concerns of those citizens of Pakistan who have been disillusioned and embittered because of the past mistakes committed by the Centre — dominated by both civilians and the military.

The politics of engagement must also extend to the broader issue of putting a credible system in place, one that uphold the constitution and the rule of law. The Opposition’s decision to table legislative bills proposing the setting up of an independent Election Commission and restoring the independence of the judiciary must be supported by all those in parliament who believe that Pakistan desperately needs a credible system if it is to be pulled out of these cyclical crises. In fact, Pakistan’s repeated experiences with this mess only point to one fundamental truth: that without a credible state system and genuine democracy functioning with an independent judiciary and an independent Election Commission, Pakistan is unlikely to experience lasting political stability and internal harmony.

Email: nasimzehra@hotmail.com