NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

PM’s bold Balochistan overtures

Eventually heartening news has come regarding the Balochistan issue when Prime Minister Imran Khan said recently that he was pondering over talking to insurgents and militants in the province. It has been more than a decade that the crisis and conflict in Balochistan has been raging but with no solution in sight. Although there has been the ebb and flow in the insurgency and militancy by miscreants and Baloch right groups in the province, yet the crisis has never fully subsided.

The statement by PM Imran Khan made in the port city of Gwadar on July 6 that he was considering “talking to insurgents” in Balochistan, saying that the government would never have to worry about insurgency in the province if attention had been paid to its development. The prime minister made the bold, rather statesmanlike statement, while addressing a gathering of local elders, students and business leaders in Gwadar. He said that he had always thought that when the PTI came to power, the government would pay attention to Balochistan because when the province progressed and there was peace, Balochistan’s inhabitants would “understand that Pakistan is also theirs and say we should also fight for it because it thinks of our basic needs and problems.” There are no two opinions about what PM Imran Khan said. The problem of Balochistan has been lack of development and nothing else. Why a province which became part of Pakistan out of the freewill of the representative Shahi Jirga would have rebelled against the state? It is a critical question to be asked. However, the answer is not that difficult to find. There has been large-scale social and economic backwardness in the province, which is rich in minerals, including huge gold and silver as well as natural gas deposits that resulted in abject and widespread poverty and unemployment there. Had the state focused its attention on the socio-economic uplift of Balochistan despite paucity of resources, the situation would have been very wholesome for the federation. In other words, there would have been no centrifugal tendencies in Balochistan.

The indifference of the federal government for the last more than 70 years regarding development in Balochistan is although well-known but even pinpointed in unequivocal terms by no other than the prime minister of the country is important. Noticeably, PM Imran Khan during the address in Gwadar said, “We have given the biggest package to Balochistan, because we believe that justice has indeed not been done with the people of Balochistan; they have been left behind.”

Why successive federal governments remained indifferent to development in Balochistan has a number of reasons. The foremost has been the over-centralized federal structure of Pakistan. Secondly, lack of genuine and visionary leadership at the state level in Pakistan, which could fathom and understand the importance of Balochistan for Pakistan, both in geopolitical and geo-economic terms. Balochistan is a province that is located on Pakistan’s border with Iran, rather it makes the entire Pakistani border with the country. Balochistan also borders Afghanistan, one of the most important neighbours of Pakistan. More importantly, Balochistan has a long seacoast and is located at a strategic point in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea just next to the Persian Gulf. The latter is one of the most strategic locations in the world. Thus, one can understand that neither the entire Pakistani leadership nor politicians from Balochistan could comprehend the strategic importance of the province. The province has become even more important with the initiation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2013 and the handing over of the operational control of Gwadar seaport to Pakistan’s closest ally, China. Beijing has been planning to invest more than $70 billion in Pakistan under CPEC road, railway and infrastructure projects. The most important aim of China regarding the CPEC is to link its western regions with sea through Gwadar as it is the shortest possible route that could provide an inlet to western China to sea and could be instrumental in its opening up and becoming part of the regional trading routes.

PM Imran Khan, while taking stock of the history of underdevelopment, said, “The Centre did not do justice with Balochistan and neither did its politicians. The money that was supposed to be spent on the development of the province was spent by the politicians on themselves.” He rightly said, “The sense of deprivation that started spreading in Balochistan, it would never have spread if the politicians in Balochistan had spent money in the right way.” He lamented that previous governments had not paid attention to Balochistan, saying that the “reasons could be found in the parliamentary democracy system in Pakistan.” While telling the truth, he said, “If someone thinks of Pakistan, he will definitely think of Balochistan. If somebody thinks of elections, he will think that there are more National Assembly seats in just Faisalabad division than in the whole of Balochistan, so he should only pay attention to it.” He also appropriately said that a country could only progress if all its areas progressed, adding, “It cannot happen that a small area rises and the others don’t.”

The assessment of PM Imran Khan that one of the reasons for the underdevelopment of Balochstan and lack of attention by the federal government is in parliamentary democracy is apt explanation of the root cause of the crisis in the province. The province is sparsely populated and according to the 2017 census, its population is around 12 million. It is important to note that Balochistan is around 42 percent of Pakistan’s land area. In parliamentary democracy, what matters is the headcount which has been quite low in Balochistan; therefore, it has remained ignored because most of the central governments have been dominated by politicians from the far more populous Punjab and Sindh provinces. Otherwise, the low population should have been an incentive for mineral-rich Balochistan’s development. The insurgents and militants have been convincing the people of Balochsitan that they would have been better off and far more developed had the province been a country. There is a lot of logic in the arguments of Baloch separatists from their point of view but it has been a kind of an extreme danger for Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistani leaders could not assess the situation despite experiencing the dismemberment of the country in former East Pakistan which emerged as Bangladesh.

The words of PM Imran Khan uttered in Gwadar sound of a statesman and hopefully this time round some concrete measures would be taken by the government to alleviate the sense of deprivation and abandonment among Balochs.