American lawmakers last month expressed their concern over the situation in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. California congressman Dana Rohrabacher specifically called upon the Islamabad government to recognize the Balochi’s right of self-determination and condemned Pakistan’s use of “brute force” in suppressing Baloch nationalism.
This is not the official position of the United States and Rohrabacher’s statements were quickly criticized by the Pakistani government.
The Balochi welcomed the attention. They have battled for autonomy since Pakistan was founded in 1947. Five wars were waged with the Pakistani army and separatist leaders never miss a chance to express their grievances against the federal government.
The Baloch question is not unique. Many former colonial states struggle with separatist threats as they were often carved out of territories that did not at all reflect ethnic and religious boundaries. An imagined nationality was forced upon the people of these states and the responsibility of nation building fell on the shoulders of the “constructed” majority which took little interest in minorities.
In the case of Pakistan, the secession of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971 was early proof that a multiethnic state, divided geographically no less, is fragile at best.
With regard to Balochistan, the federal government must take serious steps it wants to address the root of the problem. The present administration has expanded provincial autonomy and boosted financing of Balochistan but these measures have failed to address the more fundamental grievances of the Balochis against their ruling elite.
It would require a psychological massage to eradicate old and persisting anti-government sentiments from the hearts and minds of the Balochi people. In particular, the government should take seriously abuses of power and injustices that are committed in the region. The Balochi’s concerns are not always properly addressed.
In another area, policy should be reversed. Flooding Balochistan with migrants from other parts of Pakistan will not make the problem go away. The people there should be able to maintain their uniqueness and enjoy a sense of cultural independence. Balochi nationalism will only grow stronger if there is a concentrated effort to repress it.
The presence of armed forces in the streets of Balochistan also does little to quell separatist sentiments. It is the responsibility of the federal government to provide security but not to intimidate.
Balochi separatist leaders must also be more accomodative if there is to be a peaceful resolution to the unrest. Instead of advocating independence and accepting nothing less, they could demand autonomy and a fairer distribution of revenue. Six decades of fighting has given them nothing but hardship.
Whatever sympathy may exist for Balochi’s right of self-determination abroad, it is unlikely to be translated into pressure on the Pakistani government. The United States will not want to strain relations with Islamabad further over an issue in which they have very little at stake.
The diplomatic row over Rohrabacher’s provocation notwithstanding, the Balochi issue can only be resolved if government and separatist leaders sit together. The people’s hues and cries need soothing balm, not bullets.