Waiting for true federation

Issue 26 - May 2009

Umair Ahmed Muhajir

IT HAS been apparent for some time now (at least since the killing of Baloch leader Nawab Aftab Ahmed Bugti in August 2006 by the Pakistani army) that Balochistan might well end up as Pakistan’s biggest challenge. Not in terms of security, narrowly-defined, but in terms of the challenge it poses to the idea of Pakistan, and to the democratic aspirations of that country’s people. What should be no less apparent are the implications of the troubles in Balochistan for both India and the United States, and the region as a whole.

Most Pakistanis are too young to remember—or too remote from—the mass killings and rapes of Bengalis (by the Pakistani army, though also by other Bengalis, most notably the Jamaat-e-Islami) in 1971. Pakistanis have hitherto tended to approach issues of secession primarily through the prism of Kashmir, and the challenge that state’s secessionist movement poses to Indian democracy and the claims of its national ideology. But Balochistan underscores many of the same issues (although the movement in Balochistan, animated as it appears to be by concerns with resource exploitation by “outsiders,” and cultural alienation from the mainstream, is more analogous to some of India’s North-Eastern insurgencies than to Kashmir), but has not gotten the attention it deserves. This is true within Pakistan, in part due to the tendency of the urban Pakistani middle classes to lump together all the tribals “out there” as savages who only understand the language of force. On this view, tribals are people who may only be engaged anthropologically as it were—and this is so whether one extols them as natural warriors, or dismisses them as incapable of being anything other than what the stereotype of the hot-headed, “backward” subject of a traditional tribal code condemns them to be. There is thus not much need to draw distinctions between “tribals,” to differentiate the Baloch from the far more numerous and politically significant Pashtuns.
Internationally too, the tendency is to ignore Balochistan in favour of its neighbouring Pashtun-areas. The inclination is to view the province as little more than the borderland between Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. It is a view that acknowledges the province’s strategic importance, but does not engage with the political aspirations of those for whom it is home.

Indeed, the U.S. government’s new “AfPak” policy might continue this trend: Balochistan only seems to figure in that policy inasmuch as parts of it have become a staging ground for Taliban factions, and are hence the likely targets of future US drone attacks. That is a perfectly consistent position to take: after all, it makes little sense for American strategy to turn on Pakistan’s internal administrative divisions. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to view Balochistan only through the prism of the Taliban and Afghanistan: the province is Pakistan’s largest in terms of area, and is the source of most of the country’s natural gas. Moreover, it has been progressively destabilised by the influx of Pashtuns over the last thirty years (since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), as the “native” Baloch have become increasingly anxious in the face of the province’s changing demographics. If the likes of Mullah Omar and the (essentially Pashtun) Taliban are indeed in Balochistan, their presence there must be seen in the context of this wider shift in the province’s dynamics.

Even apart from any Baloch-Pashtun tension, the province is no stranger to secessionist tendencies: it was the scene of a protracted insurgency against the central government in the 1970s, a rebellion that was crushed with brutality. But over the ensuing three decades, Pakistan has not addressed the underlying causes of Balochistan’s disaffection. This is entirely consistent with the wider problem of federalism—or the lack thereof—in the country: political parties in each of the country’s smaller provinces (in practice, every province other than Punjab, which accounts for three-fifths of the population) have called for a more robust federalism over the years, to little effect. Indeed, while the world tends to analyse Pakistan’s repeated military coups only in terms of a deficit in electoral politics, military intervention may also be seen as symptomatic of the centralising drive of the state, one that compromises democracy not just by suspending the electoral process, but by vitiating federalism.

The interplay of democracy and federalism is of crucial importance, never more so than in a multi-ethnic polity, and a comparison of Pakistan with India on that front is illuminating. Arguably, nothing de-fanged the secessionist tendencies of the Tamil “Dravidian” movements in South India more than regional electoral success for the relevant parties. More generally, the many failings of Indian federalism have accidentally found some provisional relief over the last two decades: the decline of national political parties has led to a de facto federalism premised on the ability of regional parties to serve as kingmakers as far as the formation of a ruling national coalition is concerned. By contrast, the absence of meaningful federalism in Pakistan has meant that the “problem” of Balochistan has continued to fester over the 1980s and 1990s, albeit out of sight and out of mind.

No longer: during the Pakistani state’s most recent bout of highly centralised rule—the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf—another armed insurgency broke out in Balochistan. It appears to be gaining strength, and in April, the province’s capital Quetta saw riots after three Baloch nationalist figures were murdered (by, it is widely believed, state security forces). The Obama administration would be well-advised to pay attention to these developments—which have little to do with the Taliban. That is, while the “AfPak” strategy does well to take a regional approach to the problem of the Taliban and Al-Qaida, it must also account for sub-regional aspects, few of which are more significant than those concerning Baloch nationalism. A single-minded focus on the Taliban’s presence in Balochistan, to the exclusion of other considerations, would almost certainly entail an even greater Pakistani military presence in Balochistan. Such an approach can only contribute to the anti-military resentment of the Baloch, further undermining stability in the province, and in turn leading to an even better haven for the likes of the Taliban.

The situation in Balochistan has obvious implications for India as well, although it is unclear what India’s position is on the Baloch issue. As has been apparent for some years now, an unstable Pakistan poses a significant threat to India, for at least three reasons. First, fragmentation of the subcontinent’s second-largest country can spur other secessionist movements in the region. Second, a Balochistan in flux, playing host to numerous Islamic extremists, can increase the flow of arms and ideologically-motivated cadres in the region. It is easily foreseeable that such groups’ plans might well include India, whether for ideological or tactical reasons. Indeed, the 2001 parliament attack, and the 2008 Mumbai assault, might well be evidence of just such tactical sophistication, intended to heighten tensions between India and Pakistan and relieve pressure on militants in Pakistan’s western regions by forcing diversion of military resources to Pakistan’s eastern frontier. Third, neither India nor any other regional player can ignore the potential impact of greater instability on a region with both nuclear weapons and weak security standards.

In the long run, the solution is obvious: Pakistan needs a looser federal structure than exists today, and one that allows Balochistan greater control over its own natural resources; the rub, of course, lies in getting there. American or Indian influence over any such process is (and ought to be) limited, but to the extent “outsiders” can play any constructive role, it would lie in encouraging an accommodating stance by the Pakistani state toward Baloch nationalists. This is not simply a question of fairness, but of realpolitik: cooptation has tended to work far better than brutal confrontation as far as the post-1947 history of the sub-continent is concerned. As yet, there is little reason to believe that Baloch nationalism is irredeemably rejectionist as far as the idea of Pakistan is concerned. Pakistan might not be so lucky if another three decades are wasted.