Baloch separatists have pierced the relative calm created by the banned Pakistani Taliban’s temporary end to hostilities by slaying innocents. The outlawed United Baloch Army (UBA) claimed responsibility for two terror attacks this month, the April 9 bomb blast in Islamabad’s fruit market, which killed at least 25 workers, and an attack the next day at a railway station in Sibi, in which 15 people lost their lives.
The timing of the Sibi and Islamabad attacks is important as they were were carried out just as talks between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government and the Pakistani Taliban appeared to be making progress. Pakistan had witnessed a decline in terrorist activities since the Taliban, which in its time has claimed responsibility for 50,000 deaths, announced a temporary ceasefire during dialogue with the federal government last month.
The separatists, by launching terrorist attacks on public places to push their desire for an independent Balochistan, are mounting the same kind of pressure that the Pakistani Taliban piled on the government over the years and which resulted in Islamabad’s willingness to hold talks with the banned outfits.
UBA is a new separatist group whose existence was highlighted only after Sibi and Islamabad attacks. Earlier, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF) were the major outlawed groups claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks, largely inside Balochistan, where the Pakistan military has launched operations that according to human-rights groups have claimed the lives of women and children.
The province, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, suffers from a separatist insurgency and has also turned into a flashpoint where sectarian outfits have targeted the minority Hazara Shi’ite community. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have blamed India, which has increased its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, for fueling unrest in the province.
The Pakistani Taliban, know as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), is dictating the terms of dialogue with the government after slaughtering security personnel and shedding the blood of thousands of innocent citizens. It is a model that other perpetrators of terror, whether sectarian extremists or separatists, see as one they can follow. The government, by holding talks with the banned TTP, has actually shown the way to other banned terrorist outfits: first gain a position of strength by killing thousands of civilians and then enter dialogue with the state as a stakeholder. Yet, in principle, the state must crush all those elements challenging its writ and carrying out terrorist operations that kill innocent people.
There is no doubt that the Balochistan issue came out of the shadows after the attacks in Sibi and Islamabad. In Pakistan’s political culture, the authorities do not wake up to address an issue seriously until and unless enough blood is shed. Balochistan has faced an insurgency-like situation for the past decade, during which time authorities could not even marginalize the separatists.
The outlawed separatist groups must be differentiated from Baloch nationalists, who are involved in a peaceful struggle to gain economic and political rights within the constitutional framework. On the other hand, the separatists have been involved in attacks on national assets, security forces and in the killing of Punjabi settlers in Quetta and other towns in the province. It is ironic, therefore, that the nationalists and separatists are being treated with the same stick. The government’s strategy here appears to be aimed at corralling nationalists struggling for their legitimate rights into the separatist camps.
The participation of Baloch nationalist parties in last year’s general elections opened the way to bringing Baloch into the national mainstream after major nationalist parties had boycotted the 2008 elections. It also angered separatists engaged in armed struggle against the state. The province is currently ruled by a nationalist party, but the nationalists may lose popular support if they fail to resolve the conflict through the ballot box.
In their militant struggle for independence, Baloch separatists do not hesitate to seek help from anti-Pakistan forces outside the country. They restrict the hoisting of the Pakistan flag and singing of national anthem in many parts of the province where their influence is exercised through terror.
As the peaceful struggle for rights in Balochistan attracts attention not only inside the country but also abroad also, the separatist terror does not serve the Baloch cause and is actually justifying the military operation that is underway in the province. In a number of incidents, separatists have killed poor laborers and miners due to their ethnic affiliation. Travel by train and bus has become perilous throughout the southwestern province; the rail track is frequently wrecked by explosions and moving trains have been attacked. Some incidents have seen bus passengers made to get off, sorted out according to ethnic lines, and shot dead.
Unarmed and peaceful settlers have ever been soft and easy targets for the separatist groups, including the BLA, which has claimed responsibility for most of the killing of settlers. How can a barber, a miner, a professor or a government servant settled in the province be a usurper of Baloch rights? Thousands of settlers have left the province in fear and moved to Punjab and other provinces.
The federal government has made little effort to bring the disgruntled Baloch youth into the national mainstream. Though there has been sense of deprivation among local people for many years, it is particularly acute today, with the recent discovery of mass graves in the Khuzdar area adding fuel to the fire. As the sense of deprivation intensifies, feelings of being discriminated against and alienated grow, with lethal consequences.
The worsening security situation poses a real and hard security challenge for the provincial government led by Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch. It was the failure of the civil administration that presented the military establishment a chance to handle the Balochistan situation. Now the province is being tackled militarily. The military’s handling of the problem has created a host of other issues, including missing persons and recovery of bodies, helping to push the province into a state of insurgency. Human-rights watchdogs have alleged that the missing are the victims of “enforced disappearances” carried out by the military and its intelligence services. The Asian Human Rights Commission said on April 8 it had received information regarding the killing of around 40 people, including women and children, in military operations in different parts of Balochistan province.
Only the Baloch nationalists can contain the growing influence of the separatists. Pakistan statesmanship demands that the nationalists, working within the constitution to achieve aims peacefully, must be fully backed and strengthened in order to weaken the armed struggle of separatist groups.
On the other hand, the government, which is holding peace talks with Taliban militants, should also make serious effort to bring the separatists to the negotiating table. If the government is applying dialogue therapy to the militancy problem in the country’s northwest, then why not take a similar approach in the southwest?
Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( http://www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan(2004). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Copyright 2014 Syed Fazl-e-Haider)