The crucial province - Huma Yusuf - Monday 25th April 2011

IN recent conversations about Pakistan, one province has come up more frequently than the others — Balochistan.
Unfortunately, quantity rarely translates to quality, and increasing concern from various quarters about goings-on in Balochistan are, perversely, distracting from the main issue at hand: widespread human rights abuses in the form of illegal detentions, targeted killings, torture, and disappearances.
In the Pakistani context, Balochistan has become the preferred case-in-point for critics of rapid devolution. Many ask whether Balochistan has the administrative capacity for local revenue generation and expanded service delivery. Several arguments in favour of retaining ministries or legislative responsibilities at the centre also use Balochistan as an illustrative example.
For example, those who believe that the Ministry of Women Development should be maintained at the federal level point to a chief minister of Balochistan who notoriously defended the burying alive of women in an ‘honour killing’ incident as a traditional practice. What, they ask, will become of progressive legislation defending Pakistani women’s rights if certain provinces are left to their own devices?
Balochistan also features in the context of US-Pakistan relations. At a recent event at Washington’s United States Institute of Peace, Dr Marvin Weinbaum described the province as the “neglected front” in the Afghan insurgency. Indeed, US concerns about Balochistan revolve around its role in supporting Afghan Taliban fighters by providing sanctuary and facilitating militant recruitment through a network of radicalised madressahs. The US also controversially alleges that the Quetta Shura is based in the province.
Moreover, trucks carrying Nato supplies to Afghanistan have to safely traverse the province. When bilateral tensions with the US have led the Pakistan government to close the border at Torkham, the crossing at Chaman often stays open. Additionally, there has been speculation in recent months about US presence at the Shamsi Air Base.
Of course, the US is not the only external actor implicated in activities in Balochistan; in fact, the province is a point of contention in many aspects of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The debate about Indian support for Baloch separatists rages, and the international community is now asking Islamabad to present evidence to back oft-repeated claims of a ‘foreign hand’. As a result, Balochistan features almost as frequently as Kashmir in discussions about strained India-Pakistan relations, and Pakistan’s concerns about Indian intelligence activities headquartered at consulates in Afghanistan are as urgent as those about water and the LoC.
The Iran angle is also at play here since Tehran claims that Jundallah enjoys sanctuary in Balochistan, and collaborates with Pakistan sectarian outfits. This issue has a ripple effect, and is an ongoing concern in light of spreading sectarianism. Balochistan, which is home to many Hazaras and other Shia groups, is increasingly the site of much of Pakistan’s sectarian violence — according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, there were 19 sectarian target killings in the province in 2010.
Aside from regional politics, Balochistan features prominently in discussions of Pakistan’s future energy and economic security. The province provides more than 30 per cent of the nation’s natural gas, and there is increasing interest in extracting underground oil reserves. Optimistic economists predict a future in which oil and gas pipelines will crisscross the province, ensuring regional stability, and connecting Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, China, India, and the Gulf.
In yet another context, Balochistan has become the focus of the independent media’s emerging tendency to be self-reflexive. There has been much on-air and in-print hand wringing about the media’s inadequate coverage of the disastrous security situation in the province. In an ironic twist, Balochistan is in the news because it is not in the news: the acknowledgement that reportage on provincial security issues has been ‘blacked out’ has led to initial discussions on the logistical and censorial constraints under which the media has to operate.
And so it is that Balochistan has become the linchpin of many important debates about Pakistan’s political infrastructure, foreign policy, energy security, free media and more. In the process, the national conversation about Balochistan has been hijacked away from the primary and most urgent challenge of rampant human rights violations.
Amnesty International reports that over 100 bodies — a majority of which were brutally tortured — have been recovered in the past nine months; HRCP counts 298 ‘missing persons’. International rights groups suggest Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are to blame. Balochistan’s chief minister previously told the BBC that security forces were involved in some of the killings.
Consequently, civilian law-enforcers remain apathetic in the face of the mounting death toll: there are no reports of anyone having been arrested or prosecuted for the murders and kidnappings. It doesn’t help that the law-enforcement infrastructure in the province is appalling — after oscillating between the systems of levies and police officers over the past decade, 90 per cent of the province is not policed. Meanwhile, nationalist militants are hitting back by attacking provincial residents who are not ethnically Baloch.
In this rancid environment, it is essential that the national narrative on Balochistan focus on the inviolability of human safety and dignity.
Rather than dwell on geopolitics and foreign policy, Pakistanis and Pakistan observers alike should emphasise the appalling state of human rights in the province, and demand that the government strengthen the law-enforcement infrastructure. Improved security is a prerequisite for political dialogue, which in turn is essential for the Pakistani state’s success in all the above-mentioned entanglements. Without coherent and consistent pressure for action, we cannot expect change.
The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

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