Baluchistan is rightfully a matter of focus in our national discourse. Various options are being debated to reach an amicable win-win solution. Unfortunately most of the options being floated are piecemeal, have parochial biases and are being prompted by interest groups. These vary from oversimplifications to doomsday scenarios. Realism is missing from most of the analyses. No wonder the void is filled with narratives and counter narratives raising more questions than answering.

Key issue is to identify as to where resides the political force in Baluchistan? Who is a reliable, credible and influential dialogue partner whose satisfaction would mean satisfaction of the Baluch people at large? Claimant to this status are many; hereditary feudal-tribal chieftains, provincial assembly & government, separatist elements, non-separatist but angry youngsters etc. In the absence of identifying the credible bargaining agent on behalf of Baluch people, the federation would continue to remain besieged and its initiatives would continue to go down the drain.

Presently, federation is under vicious blackmail by vulture like entities, each of these not content with claiming proverbial ‘own pound of flesh’, but setting eye on the entire flesh. Nation has watched with dismay how very bold initiatives like NFC award, Aaghaz-e-Haquq-e-Baluchistan, 18th constitutional amendment, phenomenal development funds through MPAs/ provincial ministers and a number of political efforts in the form of committees, and commissions have not been able to jump start the dysfunctional political process in Baluchistan.

Policy of appeasement has not worked as it has been misdirected and its benefits have been hijacked by political middlemen; a common man of Baluchistan is left high and dry.  Government in the province consists of almost all political forces of the province, yet it is dysfunctional, and least bothered about all that is happening right under its nose.

Moreover, there is a need to assess the gravity of foreign influences/ interference; and employ appropriate diplomatic tools to rollback its effects. To start with, ‘Hand off Baluchistan’ should be part of the terms of reference on which new engagement is being envisaged with America. Likewise, quite diplomacy should be employed to restraints others interfering in Baluchistan on American behest or in solo pursuits.

In this context, National Defence University made a commendable effort by organizing a two day workshop under the caption “Baluchistan situation: Perceptions and Realities—the Way Forward”. It was a well attended and well represented event. Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf articulated his assessment of the ground realities and what our response should be to tackle the sensitive situation in Baluchistan. He extended both olive branch to the estranged people and also showed firmness in declaring that there could be no talks with those who disrespect Pakistan’s flag. He also spoke about foreign interference. He said: “We will not talk to those who are against Pakistan’s sovereignty and who burn its flag… The people of Pakistan will go an extra mile to redress the grievances of the people of Baluchistan…What we want to achieve is actually winning the hearts of our brothers through a solemn and dedicated commitment for their socioeconomic uplift.”

He praised army and the Frontier Corps for ‘promoting and protecting national interests in Baluchistan’. He said in addition to generating economic activities, the armed forces have opened a number of public schools and cadet colleges in remote areas of the province; “there is not one, but many fronts on which we need to fight for the cause of the people of Baluchistan.” While directly addressing the angry youngsters involved in negative activities within the country and abroad, he said “The entire Pakistan is yours, come and talk to your own government. You will not be disappointed.” It is reassuring that prime minister had complete understanding of the problem. He was certainly at his best when he departed from the written text. He indeed spoke his heart out.

Most of the speakers of the workshop were from Baluchistan. Unfortunately majority of them, especially the older ones could not come out of their respective parochial shells; attitude was of passing the buck rather than owning the responsibility and accepting the challenge of resolving the issue. Yet, there were speakers and participants from Baluchistan who felt the pain of Baluchistan and had the urge to outsmart the actors responsible for the prevailing situation. These were middle level tribal elders, commoners; students, journalists, lawyers, middle level officials, cutting across ethnic, sectarian and tribal identities; indeed they represented the real Baluchistan.

Baluchistan issue is a complex one even if we minus the foreign interference from the setting. Going through fifth spell of insurgency, the province warrants an innovative solution beyond patch works. Vastness of area and scarcity of communication make most of the interior Baluchistan inaccessible, and hence unmanageable. Resistance by tribal chiefs to enhancing and improving communication infrastructure is all well known.

The alternative option is creating 5-6 sub provinces through a constitutional process coupled with a bicameral legislature at provincial level. The upper house may be called house of elders having hereditary representation by all title holders. Though theoretically there is no “Sardary” system, but in practice it continues to reign with all its good and bad traditions. Acknowledgement of this reality would help in reaching a more practicable solution.  At the same time, provincial bureaucracy need to be revamped and kick started to play its role and be accountable for all development projects in the province.

Unfortunately media has been playing a negative role. Instead of promoting harmony and unity, it has been over projecting the secessionists.  It has indeed been eroding the national integrity in its quest for cashing on hype and frenzy. This needs a media led, self regulated, course correction.

Though, only a handful of elements are engaged in subversive activities and in challenging the writ of the state, yet they have generated a sense of insecurity amongst the masses. Though separatists are few in number, their voice is echoing in western capitals.  Their strategy is superb; they have diverted the public hatred towards the law enforcement agencies. And under this smoke screen, they are able to carry out brutal crimes with impunity, and yet enjoy the comfort of public sympathy.

Baluchistan issue is a serious one, but it is certainly not beyond us. It is neither a lost cause nor it is close to a point of no return. What we need is ownership of the problem and an honest and concerted effort to resolve it. Mere putting across a verbal message and setting up committees and commissions has neither worked in the past now would it work now. Probably predecessors of Prime Minister Raja also fully understood the gravity of the issue. Nation is looking for a premier who could go beyond rhetoric and ‘walk the talk’.

The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University.

Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal