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Who wants to break up Pakistan?

By Sushant Sareen
May 18, 2005 12:01 IST
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The short answer to this question is no one.

Not the ethnic nationalists who are clamouring for their right to control their resources, their politics and their destiny within their provinces;

Not the political parties of Pakistan which are trying their best to avoid an armed confrontation between the Pakistani security forces and the ethnic nationalists by evolving a formula that not only strengthens the federal structure but also addresses the aspirations of the nationalists;

Not the neighbours of Pakistan who fear the fallout of a balkanised Pakistan on their own countries;

And certainly not the sole superpower, that has a critical interest in a stable Pakistan.

And yet, the dialectics of the developing situation suggest that Pakistan is once again going to be in the throes of a life-and-death struggle to keep its federation intact.

The middle ground is fast disappearing and in spite of the fact that neither the ruling military establishment nor the agitating nationalists want an armed clash, the positions they have taken seems to be pushing them inevitably on the course of a bloody confrontation.

That the situation has deteriorated to this extent under General Musharraf is somewhat surprising because when he took the reins of power in 1999, he unveiled a seven point agenda which included a resolve to 'strengthen the Federation, remove inter-provincial disharmony and restore national cohesion.'

At the time Musharraf pledged to restore inter-provincial harmony, it appeared as though Pakistan had finally seen the back of ethnic nationalism and separatism.

But some five years down the line, Balochistan is on the verge of an armed insurgency.

The Pashtun-dominated North West Frontier Province and Tribal Areas are restive on account of the situation in Afghanistan and military operations in the tribal areas. As a result, Pashtun nationalism (different from separatism) is once again manifesting itself. Discontent is rising in Sindh. And sectarian tensions in the Northern Areas (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) are giving rise to sectarian nationalism.

Is Balochistan burning? | NWFP comes under Sharia law  

The Pakistani federation is therefore once again showing signs of strain, and many Pakistanis fear that the resurgence of ethnic nationalism will inevitably lead to armed clashes between the ethnic nationalists and the Pakistani security forces, which could well shake the foundations of the State.

Already the blame game has started and Pakistani officials and media are busy pointing fingers at the 'foreign hand,' especially in Balochistan. The usual suspects are India, Iran Afghanistan and US.

But so far not a shred of evidence has been produced that would implicate any of these countries in the troubles confronting Pakistan in Balochistan.

Until now there are only suspicions and insinuations, which emanate primarily out of a failure to understand the phenomenon at work inside Pakistan. In any case, the 'foreign hand' theory doesn't stand the test of logic.

Musharraf: What about Baluchistan? 

Iran is being implicated because it is felt that the Iranians are wary of US presence in the region and are using Baloch nationalism to hit back at the Pakistanis. But Iran would be loathe to supporting Baloch nationalism because it too has a Baloch problem and would not like to do anything that creates troubles in the Iranian Balochistan. And without Iran, India would find it impossible to meddle inside Balochistan.

Any Indian intervention through Afghanistan also cannot take place without US approval. And it is unlikely that the US will be interested in destabilising Pakistan because this would unravel the entire US game plan in Afghanistan. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the government there is hardly in a position to mess around with its neighbours.

There is some talk of the US using Pakistan and Afghanistan to train Iranian Baloch to create troubles inside Iran. But why would the Pakistanis cooperate in any such adventure, especially since it is having a blow back effect on its own territory in the shape of a Baloch rebellion?

While it is entirely possible that the arms and ammunition being used by the insurgents in Balochistan are coming through Iran or Afghanistan, this in no way implicates any of the States being accused of providing assistance to the Baloch rebels. With the whole region being awash with all sorts of weapons, procuring weapons is hardly difficult for a set of determined people.

The problem really lies inside Pakistan and its State structure. There is something seriously wrong with the political and bureaucratic structures of South Asian States -- and this includes India -- that allows problems to grow and assume Frankenstein's monster proportions before any degree of serious attention is paid to them.

What is worse, the State structures are so insular and unresponsive that unless a set of aggrieved people pick up the gun, no one in the power structure is willing to give them a hearing and solve their concerns.

Tribal leader accuses Pak of using tanks, choppers  

The mantra of the ruling elite is to not address something today that can be left for tomorrow, and that tomorrow only comes when the big bang takes place. Compounding the problem is the supercilious attitude of the military-bureaucratic establishment, which believes it has the all the knowledge of not just the problems but also their solutions. This is exactly what has led to the situation in Balochistan coming to a head, and what will create problems in Sindh and NWFP in the future.

It was this supercilious attitude that led the Musharraf regime to start a series of mega-projects in Balochistan -- the Gwadar port being the most notable. The idea was that these projects will address the issue of lack of development in Pakistan's most resource rich and yet economically most backward province. In principle, there was nothing wrong with these projects. But rather than uplifting the lot of the Baloch, they served to alienate them further.

The reason was simple. The Baloch had not only no control over these projects, they had no stake in them -- the entire labour force was imported from other parts of Pakistan and cronies of the establishment reaped all the benefits from these projects.

At the same time the Pakistan army decided to establish a string of military cantonments across the province. This again was seen by the Baloch as a step to tighten the stranglehold of Islamabad on the resources of the province. The mega-projects and military cantonments were also seen as measures to alter the demographic composition in the province and reduce the Baloch into a minority.

With matters reaching a head, and an incipient armed insurgency breaking out in Balochistan, the politicians tried to resolve the matter by forming a parliamentary committee to try and resolve matters politically.

The recommendations of these committees are quite revolutionary and if implemented in letter and spirit will leave only defence, communication, currency and foreign affairs in the hands of the federal government and leave everything else to the provinces.

Pakistan's dilemma

Many observers feel this will give the provinces the autonomy they desire and satisfy the aspirations of the nationalists. But the recommendation of the committees is probably a case of too little too late.

The Baloch nationalists have already dismissed these recommendations by saying that they don't go far enough to satisfy them. The rejection by the nationalists of what some Pakistani observers have called a 'Magna Carta' for Pakistan, reflects a disconnect between the mainstream politicians (mostly from Punjab) and the ethnic nationalists from the demographically smaller provinces.

The mainstream is unable to understand or appreciate the aspirations of the nationalists and the nationalists feel outraged at the lack of sensitivity towards their aspirations and concerns by the Pakistani mainstream.

The mainstream wants to keep Pakistan together but is not willing to accept the measures it will take to keep the country united.

The nationalists would prefer a united Pakistan, but will not shed any tears if the intransigence of the mainstream leads to a break up of the country.

The mainstream politicians and the military-bureaucratic establishment believe the nationalists want to break up Pakistan. But this is hardly the case.

What the nationalists want is a restructured Pakistan in which they have control over their resources and wealth.

Unlike the past the nationalists no longer want independence. Rather, they would prefer to have their autonomy within Pakistan so that they can partake all the advantages of a united Pakistan while at the same time enjoy control over their own destiny and their resources.

In other words, the nationalists want a greater stake within Pakistan than without.

Pakistan is not ready for a democracy yet  

From the point of view of Pakistan's neighbours, a restructured Pakistan is not such a bad deal.

For one, by satisfying the restive populations in the smaller provinces, Pakistan will increase its own stability.

Second, with a relatively weaker centre Pakistan will be more at peace with itself and with the neighbouring countries than a monolithic Pakistan with a tendency to indulge in adventurism in the neighbourhood.

Third, since most of the ethnic nationalists have a progressive and one daresay secular approach to politics, it will help in keeping the radical Islamists at bay.

Finally, it will end the interference of the Pakistan army in politics and put Pakistan firmly on the democratic path.

Image: Uday Kuckian

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Sushant Sareen