The behaviour of the powerful elite of Islamabad reminds me of the
captain and crew of the RMS Titanic sailing into the night, heading
straight towards an iceberg. The civilian, military and judicial
authorities are locked up in a tussle coloured by political positions
and personal egos. And there is a dangerous disconnect between Islamabad
and the enormous problems that loom on the Pakistani horizon.
and order appears to have collapsed in many parts of the country. In
the north-east, the former Frontier Province, there are daily killings
as suicide bombers and the army continuously fight each other.
Unemployment is widespread and inflation is sky-high. And there is still
a desperate shortage of electricity and gas in much of the country.
perhaps none of these problems is more pressing than the situation in
Balochistan. If the simmering, but widespread movement for independence
spins out of control, Pakistan will find it almost impossible to
I was reminded of Balochistan by the
recent visit of Malik Siraj Akbar to my office. It made me happy to
think back to my associations with its people and places, but I also
became distressed as I thought of the current situation: a climate of
killings and so-called "disappearances".
In his late twenties, Malik comes from Makran and was born in its
northern town, Panjgur. His sharp intelligence, awareness of the world
and passionate arguments for his people reminded me of all the people I
met in Makran as Commissioner when I was posted there in the mid-1980s.
arrival, what struck me was the resilience and faith of the Baloch, in
spite of the widespread poverty and lack of economic development. Even
after decades of the country's existence, Pakistan - it seemed - had
done very little for the Baloch. There were only five miles of paved
road in Makran - from the Commissioner's house, in Turbat, to the tiny
airport. Flights were irregular and the telephone lines to the rest of
the country were frequently out of order.
A land of honour
But I found it a fascinating
experience: the people were welcoming and the area was redolent of
history. Makran was, after all, where Alexander the Great got lost on
his way to Persia after his battles in India. Over time, I had the
privilege of meeting and getting to know legendary Baloch leaders such
as Nawab Akbar Bugti, Mir Ghaus Bukh Bizenjo, Jam Ghulam Qadir and Mir
Jafar Khan Jamali. From them, I learned that there was a time when a
woman wearing gold ornaments could travel from the north of Balochistan
to the south and not be molested.
"There was honour," they said, "in the land."
discussed Ibn Khaldun and the cyclical patterns of tribal society with
me over dinner in his ancestral home in the Bugti Agency. He told me
that Ibn Khaldun had kept him company when he was jailed by Pakistani
authorities in Sahiwal. I often wondered how many Pakistanis belonging
to the power elite had even heard of the Arab historian.
to appreciate and admire the Baloch. I knew it was most important to
deal with them on the basis of honour. In turn, they reciprocated my
sentiments and I was posted as Commissioner of three divisions
consecutively. Even the imperial British acknowledged that the key to
dealing with the Baloch was honour. Not surprisingly, the Baloch
complain that Pakistani officials treat them worse than the imperial
Malik, who has been a professional journalist all his
life, has recently been given political asylum in the United States.
Various threats and messages convinced him his life was in danger. He
talks passionately and movingly of the hundreds of Baloch who have been
brutally killed by the security agencies.
The policy of "kill and dump" is causing fear and terror among the Baloch.
He claims there is a systematic policy to eliminate the "cream of the
Baloch professionals". He lists names and professions with depressing
accuracy - professors of medicine, scholars of Baloch history and, of
course, numerous journalists.
"At least eight of my Baloch journalist friends have been killed over
the past year," he said. Some had disappeared - until their mutilated,
bullet-riddled bodies were found.
The Baloch are angry not
only at the killing of their intellectual and professional elite, but at
what appears to be a wider, deliberate cultural onslaught. Security
personnel, invariably non-Baloch, insult the Baloch at checkpoints by
cutting off the shalwar, or baggy pants. More worryingly, Baloch corpses
of those who have mysteriously disappeared are routinely found
mutilated and desecrated. One chilling message engraved with a knife on
the chest of a corpse said, "Eid gift for Baloch."
The brutal and senseless murder of Nawab Bugti and
the deliberate insult to his corpse by President Pervez Musharraf acted
as a catalyst in Balochistan. It gave the Baloch independence movement a
much needed second wind - the Baloch now had a legitimate martyr for
their cause. Paradoxically, Malik points out, Nawab was one of the few
advocates for a united Pakistan.
Islamabad has always
underestimated, and therefore mismanaged, those living on the periphery.
Islamabad tends to dismiss Balochistan because of its tiny population -
about eight million of Pakistan's total 180 million people. There is
also the prism of racial and cultural arrogance through which the Baloch
are seen. Then there is sheer ignorance: the rich culture and
traditions of the Baloch are generally not known in Pakistan.
Those who do not learn from the lessons of history, it is said, are doomed to repeat it.
In a different context, but one which illuminates the Balochistan
situation, Islamabad's treatment of East Pakistan cost it half the
country in terms of population. The colossal blunders and arrogance of
the power elite of Islamabad and the tragic killings of 1971 led to the
creation of Bangladesh.
Pakistanis seem to forget that Balochistan may only have a tiny
population - but comprises 44 per cent of Pakistan's land territory.
They forget it has vast natural resources and hundreds of miles of sea
coast which make it a key geopolitical area. While Balochistan can
survive without Pakistan, it is Pakistan that simply cannot survive
Time is running out
must be done to resolve the civil war situation in that province. The
stakes are too high for Pakistan. The power elite, obsessed with the
place intrigue involving the sordid "Memogate" affair, needs to focus
its attention on Balochistan.
Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani
and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of the army, need to fly to
Balochistan together and, setting aside personal egos for the sake of
the country, apologise to the people of Balochistan for the grievances
they have suffered. They must promise a new beginning and radical shift
in Pakistan's strategy for the Baloch. The Baloch must be made to feel
an integral part of the federation; they need to be treated with honour
This initiative should have been taken after the
disastrous actions of Musharraf in Balochistan. Muddling through is no
longer an option - time is running out for Pakistan.
these Pakistani leaders, no doubt both patriotic in their own ways, need
to ask themselves what the great MA Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan,
would have done in a similar situation. Jinnah would have met the people
of Balochistan and ensured that they knew they were a welcome,
respected and genuine part of the federation of Pakistan. No democracy
can be built on the foundations of the kind of mistrust and anger that
prevails in Balochistan.
When I asked Malik what he had to say
to Pakistan, he replied: "My message to Pakistan is simple: everyone
should be provided equal opportunities of progress and prosperity. Who
would like to live in a country which sends bullet-riddled dead bodies
of young Baloch professionals on a regular basis? Underestimating the
situation in Balochistan would amount to committing political suicide."
Professor Akbar Ahmed is a member of the Board of Advisors at The INstitute for Social POlicy and Understanding, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic studies, American University, Washington DC and author of Journey into America (Brookings Press 2010). He was Pakistan's High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland.
This article was published by Al Jazeera on January 15, 2012. Read it here.