Re-thinking Balochistan and why it matters now more than ever
In 1849, when the British captured the southern part of Afghanistan and made it a part of the Indian Empire, Pakhtun tribes offered a bloody and long-drawn-out resistance to the colonial army. Pakhtun opposition and resistance were extremely overwhelming for the colonial masters and as a reaction, they set out the oriental discourse of the Pakhtun society as a wild land of unruly and independent people that could neither be conquered nor be tamed. Unfortunately, almost after seventy years Pakistan has been unable to break free from the draconian colonial mindset that significantly tainted how we view ourselves. We bowed down to the rationalisation for European colonialism which, according to Edward W Said, allowed the West to construct the East as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or rescue.
The remnants of this dogma are ingrained in our societal fabric and are manifested in the form of popular discourse and perceptions of people in our country. The politics and policies that our leadership had adopted towards the province are an extension of this social description of the people of Balochistan, as political account takes its cue from the customs, thoughts and culture of the society.
These societal constructs help create space that is required by the government to operate and to validate and justify its actions. The narrative helps to remove the sense of alienation that surrounds the ruling bodies and closes down the gap between the governing and the governed. The only exception is when the masses question the legitimacy of the ruling elite and refuse to acknowledge the writ of the state. That’s when conflict emerges and ensues. And this is what happened in Balochistan.
Over-centralisation of the state, reluctance to grant political autonomy to the provinces, extremely limiting the share of Balochis in the natural resources extracted from their province, dwindling human development indicators and deploring security situation of Balochistan acted as irritants and stimulants for the mobilisation that later turned into a full-fledge insurgency.
Military operations were launched every time to quell the dissenting voices emerging from the largest province in Pakistan. The Balochi nationalists came in direct confrontation with the establishment in 1948, 1958-59, 1962-63 and 1973-77 and in 2003.
The inability to dispel the exclusionary rhetoric and cater to the grievances of the people of Balochistan is not only a diplomatic failure but also shows our incapacity (read arrogance) to learn from our mistakes. We lost half of our country to similar bigoted and careless policies in 1971 and are still haunted by the ghosts of the past. Analysing the Balochistan issue, maybe our political systems are so corrupt and incompetent that they can’t meet the demands of Balochis. And the establishment is clinging to its colonial roots and trying to deliberately suppress and exploit the people of Balochistan.
Alternatively, we accept that Balochis really are rugged, untamed people with obnoxious and illegitimate demands. Either way, the Balochi insurgencies and resulting military operations are not to be taken lightly since no one takes up arms unless the alternative is worse.
So what is the destiny of the people of Balochistan? Do they really need to be tamed? Do we need to impose civilised cultural thinking on its people before exporting development and democracy to the province? Or (God forbid), we need to look inward and realise our political and governance failures?
The influx of funds, developmental projects and international attention directed towards Balochistan under mega development projects like Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) makes it more pressing and pertinent to answer these questions.
Ideally, it shouldn’t take billions of dollars of foreign investment to shift our interest towards putting our house in order. But in a normal situation, the military and paramilitary forces also don’t adopt the strategy of killing and dumping people in the streets.
It is high time that we break free from our colonial past and instead of doling out money to play one tribal leader against the other, we should rethink the case of Balochistan. It is true that there are no rivers in the province, there is extreme scarcity of water and the land is unprotected. However, it is also true that Balochistan accounts for 44 percent of the total area of Pakistan, contains plethora of natural resources and has only five percent of the total population. I believe it to be opportunity in disguise.
We live in the 21st century and it is offensive to the human advancement if anyone argues that due to the demographic and cultural problems, Balochistan is an insolvable conundrum. However, believing that the government can initiate mega projects like CPEC without massively revamping the structure, processes and systems in Balochistan is not only naïve but downright reckless. If anything, it will further exacerbate the situation and will be no short of a catastrophe.
The government of the day must realise that it can’t opt for quick-fixes and dust everything under the rug.
What does the decision to create a security force for the protection of the Chinese workers imply anyway? That the security situation of Balochistan will improve and all threats will be resolved overnight? Or that we care more about the lives of our investors than our own people?
Before we open our borders and ask our neighbours to invest, we need to accept and own our provinces and our people along with all their potential and problems. But have we done enough?
Have we invested in our human capital? Have we invested in education and vocational training? Do we have small self-sustaining industries? Do we have hospitals, clinics and supporting infrastructures? Have we empowered our women? Have we choked funding of elements radicalising our society? Do we have law and order? Have we built the trust that is required for smooth working of a government?
All development projects are doomed before they begin unless they are owned by the Balochi people. And that is not going to happen until the government answers the above mentioned questions and explains itself. Till then, regarding the multi-billion mega development projects, we have to ask ourselves: Is Balochistan even ready?