It took a maverick US Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, to bring Balochistan on to the centre-stage of Pakistan's political discourse. The Congressional hearing organised by Rohrabacher, followed by the resolution moved by him in the US Congress calling for the right to self-determination in Balochistan shook and shocked the Pakistani establishment – military, media, politicians and judiciary, all together – out of their callous reverie about Balochistan. Suddenly, Balochistan became the flavour of the season and saturation coverage was given to the dismal state of affairs in the province. Parallels were drawn with the follies committed by the Pakistani state in the erstwhile East Pakistan, doomsday scenarios were floated, conspiracy theories were conjured up and verbal self-flagellation about the sins of omission and commission committed by the Pakistani state, particularly the security establishment (Army, FC, intelligence agencies and their jihadist proxies) became the order of the day for over two weeks.
Then, just as suddenly as Balochistan erupted on air waves and newsprint as a panic word, it disappeared. This was partly the result of the cracking of the whip by the ‘deep state’ and a muzzle order issued by the media regulator, and partly it was the result of a realisation that the heavens were still some distance away from falling down and all was still not lost in the province. Notwithstanding the degree of equanimity that has come into the public discourse on Balochistan, it is quite clear that Pakistan is at its wits end on how to address the sweeping anti-Pakistan and pro-independence sentiment in Balochistan. Other than resorting to Gestapo-like tactics to bludgeon the freedom seeking Baloch into submission, the Pakistani establishment is pretty clueless on what it can do to woo the Baloch and end their alienation and disaffection with Pakistan. Until now, Pakistan has been following a 3 C’s policy: (1)coercion (illegal confinement and targeted killings by death squads run by the Pakistani intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces like the Frontier Corps), (2)corruption (buying off support of the local politicians and every Pakistani party recruiting their own set of Quislings, collaborators and what Baloch freedom fighters call ‘Sarkari’ Baloch like the Lt. Gen. (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, Chief Minister Aslam Raisani, Sardar Sanaullah Zehri etc.), and (3) cajoling and cooption (grandiose gestures like the Aaghaz-e-Huqooq-e-Balochistan package of economic initiatives and political reforms, cosmetic gestures like making the port city Gwadar second capital, increasing recruitment of Baloch into army and paramilitary forces, some development work, and tons of propaganda) – to woo the Baloch or at least sow divisions in their ranks. But there is little by way of success that this policy has achieved.
Another tack adopted by the Pakistani establishment was to use the ‘embedded’ media to churn out a counter narrative which was a combination of an Ostrich-like approach to the problem and a deliberate attempt to play down the severity of the issue. According to this narrative, the problem in Balochistan was only of three out of around seventy odd Sardars – Bugti, Mengal and Marri – and was limited to around four to five districts, including Dera Bugti, Kohlu, Khuzdar and Turbat. But the incongruity of this narrative is borne out by the sheer mismatch between the scale of the insurgency and panic in Islamabad. After all, if the problem in Balochistan was so small, then why was so much newsprint and airtime expended on discussing the problem? Perhaps the answer to this lies in what Sardar Akhtar Mengal called a panic created by the fact that the ‘overlord’ (read US) had suddenly taken notice of the rampant and brazen violation of human rights in Balochistan by the ‘underling’ (read Pakistani establishment)! The Pakistani spin about the fringe nature of insurgency has also been blunted by the gauntlet thrown by the leaders of the Baloch freedom movement who have challenged Pakistan to test the popularity of the demand for independence by holding a referendum under international supervision to ascertain whether the Baloch wanted to stay in Pakistan or wanted their freedom.
A clumsy effort was also made to sow ethnic and linguistic divisions by pitting the Baloch against the Pashtuns and the Balochi speaking against the Brahvi speaking people, but it did not receive much traction because the protagonists of Baloch independence have made it very clear that they hold no claim over Pashtun lands – North Balochistan – and are not demanding independence for Balochistan province but for only the Baloch areas of the province along with Baloch areas of Punjab and Sindh. The Pakistani ‘deep state’ and its clients in the media and political establishment also tried to discredit the Baloch freedom movement by coming up with conspiracy theories and launching a propaganda campaign about how an international conspiracy masterminded by the perfidious Americans and fully supported by the Israelis and Indians was being hatched to dismember Pakistan.
Far from being fazed by this canard, leaders of the Baloch freedom movement openly welcomed any assistance that would come their way regardless of where it came from. One of the icons of the Baloch freedom movement, Brahmdagh Bugti, even said that they would accept the assistance from Satan himself to rid themselves of the yoke of Pakistan. Indeed, many of the Baloch activists are hoping that the propaganda about foreign assistance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, something that cannot be ruled out if the Pakistani paranoia gets a life of its own and ultimately forces the international community to intervene to prevent the atrocities being committed against the Baloch. In a sense, the seriousness of the situation in Balochistan can be gauged by the fact that until now there has been practically no assistance given by any foreign power to the Baloch, something that the Pakistan military and intelligence establishment know very well. What is scaring them is how much the situation can actually deteriorate if some foreign power did start providing 'diplomatic, political and moral support'.
The attempt to push things under the carpet, deflect attention from the real issue, and downplay the unrest and alienation in Balochistan doesn’t mean that things are looking up for Pakistan and that they are not as bad as was being projected. In fact, the situation is probably a lot worse and could deteriorate further, both because the Baloch freedom fighters are already feeling enthused by their cause coming on to the radar screen of the international community and also because the Pakistani crackdown is likely to get a lot more brutal, albeit after a bit of a lull to let things cool down. In the meantime, the Pakistani political establishment has pretended to reach out to the disgruntled Baloch leaders by announcing a withdrawal of cases against them and declaring an intention to hold a sincere and serious dialogue with the Baloch leadership to address their grievances. But instead of placating the Baloch, the withdrawal of cases has been greeted with derision. As for a dialogue, the Baloch leaders have declared that they will be willing to talk to the Pakistani establishment only if the talks are centred on discussing Balochistan’s independence.
The Baloch leaders – both pro-independence and pro-federation – have also rejected the All Parties Conference proposed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. While the Baloch have labelled the APC as a pointless exercise, even mainstream political parties in Pakistan, in particular the main opposition party PMLN, have dismissed the APC proposal. In fact, the PMLN has attached almost impossible to meet pre-conditions – arresting and trying the murderers of Nawab Akbar Bugti (read former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf), recovering and releasing all ‘missing persons’ (believed to have been picked up by the security agencies), and brining to justice all officials involved in extra-judicial killings. Actually, the PMLN is more interested in grinding its own political axe rather than seriously address the Balochistan issue. Given such an attitude and approach, it is no surprise that the APC is a stillborn proposal in which no one is interested, certainly not the ruling PPP which is chary of doing anything that ruffles the feathers of the military establishment.
Time however could be running out for the Pakistani state in Balochistan. Things have reached such a pass that pro-federation politicians who act as toadies of the government are finding it difficult to defend, much less justify, the actions of the Pakistani state. In any case, the traditional political elite has been steadily losing ground to a new crop of middle-class youth leaders who cutting across tribal lines are forging a potent national movement. None other than the doyen of Baloch nationalists, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, admitted this to PMLN chief Nawaz Sharif. According to Mengal, things were no longer in the control of the old leadership as a new generation of leaders were now calling the shots. The man who is believed to have become the icon of the Baloch freedom fighters is the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) chief, Dr Allah Nazar. Others like the Balochistan Republican Party (BRP) chief, Nawabzada Brahmdagh Bugti (grandson of the slain Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti), Hyrbyair Marri (son of Nawab Khair Bux Marri), and Balochistan National Party (BNP) chief Sardar Akhtar Mengal (son of Sardar Attaullah Mengal) are also in the vanguard of the nationalist movement. But while Dr Allah Nazar is fighting against Pakistan from inside Balochistan, the other pro-independence leaders are in exile and hence their effectiveness is somewhat reduced.
At the political level, moves are afoot to bring all the pro-independence elements together and forge a united national movement. The first step in this direction has been taken with efforts underway agree on a ‘Freedom Charter’ which will serve as the vision statement of a future Balochistan state. But a lot will depend on how much support the international community gives to the Baloch. It is entirely possible that with tectonic changes taking place in the region, especially in relation to Afghanistan and Iran, the international community might discover that an independent Baloch state could well be the strategic answer to all their problems. But it is equally possible that a tired and defeated international community might recede into a shell to lick its wounds and leave the Baloch to their own devices. In case of the former, chances of an independent Balochistan which also acts as a bulwark against Islamic fanaticism and terrorism will be very bright. But in the latter case, with no help coming for the Baloch, chances are that the Baloch independence movement being smothered yet again.