by I.A. Rehman
The announcement of the Balochistan package has revealed one of those unusual situations when both sides to an issue are right and wrong at the same time.
Balochistan’s nationalist politicians are right in criticising the package for absence of decisions on their immediate concerns. They are perhaps wrong in entertaining an inflated view of the Raza Rabbani committee’s mandate and in assuming the government to be more powerful than it really is.
The government is right in claiming credit for a detailed mapping of the areas where reform is urgently needed. It is wrong in assuming that it is possible to palm the alienated and restive people of Balochistan off with a mere listing of pious intentions.
The inescapable conclusion is that the federal establishment has once again tripped. Instead of taking and announcing decisions on the parliamentary committee’s proposals it stumbled into the error of relying overly on these recommendations and treating them as policy decisions.
The authors of the package have done well to frame issues and indicate the direction of reform. The matters covered by them include determination of the quantum of provincial autonomy, restructuring of the NFC awards, release of political prisoners, dialogue with all major stakeholders, involuntary disappearances, construction of cantonments, role of federal (read intelligence) agencies, royalty formulas, mega projects, share in ownership of oil and gas companies, probe into the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti and some other Baloch leaders, quota in HEC scholarships and additional jobs for the people of Balochistan.
This roster of issues of governance roughly corresponds to the almost entire range of the Baloch leaders’ grievances. However, the package committee has been unduly cautious in suggesting the substance of reform. For instance, it has glossed over the all-important question of constitutional reform by referring to the provisions of the constitution that are being examined by the parliamentary committee on constitutional reforms.
The provisions under review include the legislative lists and Articles 153 to 159 of the constitution (Council of Common Interest, complaints relating to interference with water supplies, the National Economic Council, matters related to generation and supply of electricity, taxes on and tariff for its distribution, and broadcasting and telecasting).
The committee’s reticence in making more specific recommendations on issues that are on the agenda of another body is understandable. The risk of proposing something contrary to the constitutional reform committee’s findings cannot be ignored.
However, since matters covered by the provisions listed here constitute the crux of the Balochistan crisis, people not only in Balochistan but also in all other parts of the country were waiting for a definite work plan. Efforts should have been made to have the constitutional reform committee’s report ready before the package was finalised. Of course the Raza Rabbani committee could not do this, the responsibility lay with the government.
However, it is not possible to agree with all the proposals included in the package. For instance, the composition of the commission to be constituted to deal with the question of missing persons will find few supporters.
It has been suggested that the commission should be headed by a judge from Balochistan and its other members should be the federal defence and interior ministers and the provincial home minister. At best such a commission will be a one-sided affair. The ministers mentioned here are part of the problem and their capacity to come up with fair solutions is extremely doubtful. The task of doing justice to the missing persons demands a probe body free of the executive’s influence. A parliamentary commission should be a healthier proposition although those suspected of being responsible for the disappearances are not known to be amenable to any institution’s advice.
The main responsibility for an inauspicious start of the Aghaz-i-Huqooq exercise lies with the federal government. It should have been aware of the Balochistan people’s distrust of reform proposals that began with the dismissal of the report of the reform committee of 1949. They are completely fed up with reform proposals because of a long history of failure to implement them.
The government could have earned the goodwill it sorely needs by announcing implementation of at least some of the reform ideas. For instance, it could have implemented the proposal that ‘the federal government, in collaboration with the provincial government, should immediately release all political workers, except those charged with heinous crimes’.
The plea for the release of all persons against whom no charges have been made could have been conceded before parliament met in a joint session. The commission to probe the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti could have been set up straight away.
Unfortunately, the episode of the package has again exposed Islamabad’s inability to grasp the seriousness of the Balochistan crisis. It does not seem to realise that vague proposals for removing Balochistan’s grievances accumulated over six long decades can make no impression on its Young Turks nor can they attract elements that are prepared to entrust their future to the Pakistan federation. The latter need to have something tangible in their hands with which to negotiate with the angry young people of Balochistan. Besides, it is doubtful if the federal government can have a fruitful dialogue with the estranged Baloch leaders some of whom have chosen to stay abroad. A better bet should be the creation of a climate in which it may be possible to promote an intra-Balochistan dialogue, that is, a dialogue between the province’s political parties and ministers/parliamentarians on one side and the radicalised sections of the province’s population on the other.
Pakistan’s rulers have made so great a mess with their arbitrary actions against the people of Balochistan that they do not believe the complex issues confronting them cannot be instantly resolved. The federal government increases its problems by refusing to admit that it does not have the power needed to recover and release all the missing persons or to limit the activities of ‘federal agencies’ or to give an unambiguous pledge on the construction of new cantonments.
Islamabad’s strategists must not ignore the fact that Balochistan is divided into two camps — those who have set their sights on independence and those who are as yet prepared to find accommodation within the federation of Pakistan. The former are unlikely to be won over by any reform package. That leaves the government with only one option — to enable the latter group to engage the general public and convince it that suppression of the Balochistan people is history.
One hopes the government can still save the package from becoming a non-starter by commencing action on some of its key recommendations.