|Image: Bilash Rai|
The relationship between Balochistan and the ‘federation’ has always been troubled. Pockets of resentment have existed vis-à-vis the Islamabad state throughout the country’s short history, and no government has been able to address Baloch grievances permanently. In fact, most governments have focused on stopgap arrangements, addressing only temporary political compulsions.
Nonetheless, there is no dearth of understanding of the root causes of Baloch grievances. The province is by far the most underdeveloped in the country, with dismal literacy rates and virtually no productive infrastructure. Moreover, Balochistan continues to be entrenched in a tribal set-up, with a number of powerful sardars catering to their own interests and readily challenging the state whenever it seems prudent. For its part, the state has exacerbated the alienation of the people by attempting political subjugation in order to check nationalist tendencies – the latest manifestation of which is the ongoing military operation against ‘dissidents’. The majority of observers believes that the eventual solution lies in granting political autonomy to the province. Yet, despite emphases on historical grievances and calls for either independence or provincial autonomy, there is a virtual consensus among experts within Pakistan that Balochistan’s real problems are socio-economic in nature.
Let us first consider the issue of development, wherein the primary concern is over who would gain from the Islamabad-proposed mega-development projects in Balochistan. A genuine apprehension of the sardars and locals alike is that development in the province will end up excluding the indigenous population from the bulk of the benefits. While the government continues to maintain otherwise, such an outcome is inevitable given that the majority of Baloch labour is unskilled, and will therefore not be able to fill positions available only to a skilled workforce. As such, outsiders (from Punjab, Sindh and NWFP) are likely to gain most from these opportunities. Already, it is common to find non-Baloch workers employed across the hierarchy of jobs in both the public and private sectors in Quetta and elsewhere. Given the feelings of anti-Punjabi resentment in the province, a development agenda that is perceived to be no more than another avenue to enhance Punjabi domination in Balochistan could trigger a counterproductive reaction and alienate the Baloch populace even further. In an extreme scenario, this could even lead to a strengthening of anti-state sardari elements, which are sure to stress the disproportional development benefits to non-Balochis in a quest to rally the masses.
One is hard-pressed to find a way out of this dilemma. It is impossible for development to take place, at least in the short run, without the exacerbation of some traditional grievances. Perhaps the only option for the state would be to formulate a mutually agreeable arrangement, by assuring benefits for locals, with an eye towards co-opting those Baloch anxious about losing out in the grand development scheme.
There is no denying the fact that it is persistent mistakes on the part of successive national governments that have landed Balochistan-Islamabad relations in complete disarray. However, one cannot shy away from the fact that those who support autonomy, development and increased literacy as solutions remain oblivious to what is involved in attaining these feats. Given the current power structures within the province, it is virtually impossible to imagine a quick-fix implementation mechanism that could bring Balochistan into the political and economic mainstream.
While giving due weight to the argument for autonomy, and to the fact of the marginalisation of Balochistan in development, it is important also to look at the other side of the coin. While ensuring social and economic progress is clearly an imperative, Balochistan’s tribal culture is currently a major hindrance in the path of mega-development projects that promise, in the long term, to bring employment and productivity to the province. Islamabad’s exaggerated version notwithstanding, it is a fact that each tribal leader has traditionally only been interested in development projects that are credited to him, and that are of primary benefit to his own tribesmen. Thus, over the years, tribal leaders have remained averse to development agendas mandated by the provincial government in Quetta, since they stood to receive little or no credit. In such a scenario, to expect the government to be able to successfully employ a holistic development framework is naïve. The only option is to diplomatically sideline the influence of the sardari system, without necessarily preparing for a head-on collision.
Here is where the Islamabad government has gone wrong. Rather than targeting the tribal culture for change in the province, government policy over the decades has maintained the system, simultaneously engaging tribal leaders and alienating the common Baloch. Successive governments have found it prudent to continue flip-flopping and maintain a foothold by setting one sardar against another, only to subsequently reverse whenever the allied sardars became irritants. This has meant tacit support to the tribal system at the expense of according importance to and developing the capacity of the government’s own functionaries in the province.
An understanding of this dynamic helps to put in context the routine mode of operation of any initiative undertaken by Islamabad, wherein the sardars are given importance over the provincial authorities. A classic example of such an approach was seen last year when, in an effort to find a negotiated settlement to the Baloch insurgency, Islamabad directed its official negotiators towards the key sardars, bypassing the entire provincial and local state apparatus. Moreover, it is no secret that Islamabad’s current Balochistan policy completely sidelines the provincial and local governments. Even the members of the ruling alliance in Balochistan have been critical of the Centre’s heavy-handedness. As such, it is hardly surprising that state functionaries do not command respect in the province, and are helpless in the face of tribal opposition.
Intrinsically linked to this situation is the concern over granting autonomy to political actors in the province. This is extremely difficult to achieve. Perhaps the toughest question to answer is exactly to whom that autonomy would apply. Today, fair elections in Balochistan are certain to produce a tenuous coalition government, which would be likely to include a number of nationalist elements, as well as anti-Islamabad sardari groupings. Keeping in mind the sardars’ vested interests, the government’s apprehension about providing autonomy to such a set-up is not completely unwarranted.
Moreover, given state functionaries’ lack of influence, an autonomous set-up could quickly provide prominence to the victorious sardari elements, with the pro-Islamabad moderates being sidelined. This possibility accentuates Islamabad’s inherent paranoia about loosening its tight-fisted control over the province. On the other hand, if Islamabad decides to initiate autonomy under a relatively unpopular government – as would be true if a government were to be installed with Islamabad’s blessings – there would be tremendous domestic resistance against allowing such a set-up to establish its writ.
There is one window of opportunity that Islamabad has not focused upon thus far, and to which it must urgently turn its attention. This is the growing yet underestimated influence of the Baloch middle class, based in Quetta and Makran District – the only two major areas that have historically been outside the hold of the tribal system. Quetta and Makran now possess a substantial number of indigenous Baloch who are eager to join the mainstream of development, and are also supportive of a unified Pakistan (though they still resent Islamabad’s heavy-handedness). This middle class presents the most likely Baloch ally for the Centre. Over the long run, this category could both drive the province’s development agenda, and provide cadres who could responsibly handle a relatively autonomous province.
One crucial key to fostering this type of ability and empathy – indeed, for the prospect of any long-term normalcy in Balochistan – is in improving education in the province. While the sardari system is often cited as being an obstacle to achieving this end (because, it is said, of the fear that educated individuals would challenge the system’s legitimacy), past experience shows potential for pushing the education agenda regardless of tribal influence. For example, during the 1990s, the World Bank funded an elaborate project for female primary education in Balochistan. This undertaking managed to achieve most of its objectives, and came to be considered highly successful. One of the more interesting findings was that parents were willing to spend more on the schooling of their daughters, so long as they were guaranteed a quality education. Parents even participated actively, through village committees, to ensure that the process started by the programme continued. The districts chosen for the programme included those heavily influenced by tribal culture, and reactions were largely the same across the board.
Islamabad needs to draw on these types of experiences, and invest heavily in education in interior Balochistan – a responsibility towards which it has been delinquent partly due to past governments’ priority of engaging the sardars. The state of higher education in Balochistan, for one, is dismal, with institutions confined to Quetta for the most part and even these exhibiting poor standards. Of course, education will not provide any short-term dividends. What it will do, however, is ensure a continuous stream of pro-development citizens in future generations, who could ultimately benefit from the opportunities afforded by what will hopefully be a mainstreamed and relatively autonomous province.
Under the present scenario in Balochistan, implementing any such recipe is more difficult than most analysts have suggested. Nonetheless, Islamabad needs to begin contemplating these issues immediately, with a priority of reaching a win-win implementation mechanism. On the positive side, the government already agrees with the broad parameters of success in Balochistan as listed above. The unanswered question is how to achieve them.
~ Moeed Yusuf is a consultant on economic policy at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, and a regular commentator for The Friday Times.