Balochistan: a new opportunity

A MAIDEN, day-long trip to Balochistan by Prime Minister Imran Khan has yielded a familiar set of statements regarding economic development and the PTI’s fight against corruption. Mr Khan’s comments about reviewing CPEC projects to address the concerns of the Balochistan government are likely to add to the uncertainty regarding how the government intends to proceed with the vast portfolio of Chinese investments in and loans to Pakistan. Yet, perhaps most striking was what the prime minister did not dwell on in Balochistan: the sense of alienation among swathes of the Baloch population that has fed a long-running low-level separatist insurgency in the province. Prime Minister Khan was quoted as saying that the federal and provincial governments will take steps to bring back Balochistan’s people who have left the province because of terrorism and violence, but it is not clear who the prime minister was referring to. There was no appeal to either alienated Baloch citizens or Baloch separatists living abroad to engage in dialogue with the state. Over the years, what has been apparent is the standard twin approach of the Pakistan state to Balochistan: casting the province’s political problems as wholly a matter of underdevelopment and poor economic growth and adamantly viewing Balochistan through the prism of security and regional strategic policies. In 10 years of elected governments and from the latter half of the Musharraf dictatorship, the approach favoured by the Pakistani state in Balochistan has not worked. Indeed, large swathes of the province continue to remain virtual no-go areas and there is very little independently verifiable information that trickles out of the province today. While no provincial or federal government has been able to make much headway in peacefully ending the insurgency in Balochistan, new assemblies and governments at the centre and in the provinces can be an opportunity to reassess the situation and make fresh peace overtures. That does not appear to be the case in 2018 so far. It is hoped that the Balochistan government and the PTI at the centre will not continue to avoid dealing with hard issues in the province. Arguably, at no point over the last decade have the government in Balochistan, the federal government and the military leadership been working in as close and accommodating a manner as the dispensation today is. In Balochistan that can be opportunity for positive change. Prime Minister Khan has the political capital to attempt a different approach in Balochistan — if he is inclined to do so. A day-long trip to Balochistan nearly two months since being sworn in does not suggest the province is high on Mr Khan’s priorities. Perhaps the prime minister would do well to begin by seeking the input of moderate political forces in Balochistan on the way ahead. Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2018