QUETTA— Pakistan’s largest province Baluchistan has been gripped by a low-level insurgency that dates back to the country’s founding. But the new Baluch nationalist leader is urging armed groups to give up their decades-long fight and accept dialogue with the government.
Ethnic Baluch militants have long fought for greater control over Baluchistan’s natural resources or its outright secession from Pakistan. The uprising dates back to Pakistan’s founding, when some Baluch tribes refused to become part of the country and launched several unsuccessful rebellions starting in 1948.
The unrest has meant federal authorities maintain a large military presence in the impoverished province. But the security forces have long been criticized by independent observers as heavy handed, fueling separatist feelings.
The election of a Baluch nationalist, Abdul Malik, as the provincial chief minister this past May, however, has raised new hopes for stability. A medical doctor by profession, Malik is the first civilian administrator from the province’s educated middle class who is neither a tribal chieftain nor a member of the former ruling families.
He said that although his ruling National Party did not represent all the Baluch groups, he was calling on Baluch insurgents to join him in a mission to bring peace to the province.
“They should come to table and talk. The basic subject should be the people of Baluchistan, and if they [insurgents] agree we can develop the Baluchistan [province] and make the supremacy of the people and empower the people. This is the 21st century, so I think we can succeed and we can take our rights by democracy not by gun,” said Malik.
Malik faces daunting challenges.
In recent months, sectarian violence has escalated as suspected Sunni Muslim extremists attack minority Hazara Shiite Muslims in and around Quetta, killing hundreds.
Baluch politicians accuse state security agencies and paramilitary forces of illegally detaining and killing activists demanding autonomy. Hundreds of bodies of Baluch activists and leaders bearing gunshot wounds have been found across the province in recent years. Authorities deny they are responsible.
Chief Minister Malik said he was in contact with the federal government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to seek a resolution to the problem of “missing people.” He also has plans to gain oversight of the controversial federal paramilitary troops known as Frontier Corps or FC.
“If you want to solve problems of Baluchistan the federal government and provincial government should be on one page. The federal government should bind the FC that they should work under the provincial government otherwise it is useless,” he said.
Although Prime Minister Sharif has vowed to improve the situation in Baluchistan, many analysts are skeptical whether he will convince the military to allow the civilian leadership greater power over policies for the province.
Some Baluch separatists are also not likely to support a peace agenda. While security forces are blamed for many of the abuses in the region, some separatist groups are also accused of kidnapping and killing moderate nationalists. Chief Minister Malik himself survived at least one assassination attempt while campaigning for the May elections.
Baluchistan’s patchwork of 18 major tribes has long made it difficult to govern. Each tribe is headed by a Sardar or chieftain who commands his own armed militia.
Professor Kaleemullah Barech at Quetta's University of Baluchistan said these chieftains and successive corrupt provincial governments were equally responsible for the lowest health, education and living standards in Baluchistan .
“It is a big challenge, especially in Baluch area the Sardars still have authority and they also damn care about the education, about the health. So this is a big challenge for the present government also a big challenge for the people and for those who are teaching,” said the professor.
Despite Chief Minister Abdul Malik’s appeal for unity among the separatist groups, analysts believe that power-struggles among chieftains and their occasional self-interested alliances with Pakistan’s powerful military have left the Baluch community politically fragmented.
But their infighting has also undermined public support for the separatist cause, perhaps providing a window for Malik’s plan for peace to gain broad backing.