As the three-day Eid holiday in Pakistan fades into distant memory, attention will shift from festivities towards signs of the formal start of a dialogue aimed at restoring peace to Balochistan.
The province has been in the grip of a bloody insurgency for nearly a decade. Balochistan’s relations with Islamabad have been fraught with tension since the then-leader of Kalat, Ahmad Yar Khan, acceded to Pakistan some seven months after the country won independence from British India in 1947.
These troubled relations have exploded into uprisings against the state in 1948 and again in 1958. There was a third rebellion in the mid-1970s, as the Baloch, complaining of a denial of rights, took to the mountains.
Neglect has fuelled the Baloch sense of alienation and served as a catalyst for renewed separatism.
The current insurgency was triggered by the alleged rape of a young female doctor working in the Sui gas fields, which fell within the tribal jurisdiction of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2005. The alleged rapist was an army captain, deployed as part of the contingent protecting the gas fields as the Bugti tribesman were locked in a dispute with the government over royalty payments and jobs for the locals.
The chieftain was outraged at the rape of a woman in his jurisdiction and demanded justice. The military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, didn’t wait for an inquiry report and pronounced the captain not guilty. An escalating war of words was followed by military action. The elderly Nawab took to the mountains and was eventually killed in August 2006 when the military stormed his hideout. With him was his grandson and named tribal heir, Brahmdagh Bugti, who narrowly escaped and remained underground, later resurfacing in exile in Afghanistan. He then moved to Switzerland.
In August, Brahmdagh Bugti, 37, who is seen as one of the key rebel leaders who has waged war against Pakistan since the killing of his grandfather, raised hopes of a negotiated settlement when he expressed readiness for talks. He also seemed willing to make concessions to his original demands for a separate homeland.
Critically, Bugti said it was his understanding that both the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and army chief General Raheel Shareef backed the peace process. Having welcomed the rebel leader’s statement, more recently the chief minister of the province, Abdul Malik Baloch, went a step further when he said he hoped the talks would be initiated after Eid.
Sources confirmed a “jirga”, or committee of senior tribal leaders, is being organised and will be holding talks, among others, with the current leader of Kalat, who lives in self-imposed exile in the UK ever since he renounced the legitimacy of Pakistan in a “jirga” he chaired the after the death of Bugti. He too has expressed willingness to negotiate.
The army chief’s backing for the process would be crucial. The previous government of Asif Zardari attempted, but the country’s powerful military, dominated by Punjabis, is said to have vetoed any negotiations with the Baloch separatists. The army seemed confident of rooting out the insurgency via the use of brutal force.
Allegations by Baloch groups that tens of thousands of Baloch activists have become victims of state-sponsored killings are exaggerated, but international bodies, such as Human Rights Watch, have documented dozens of cases each year since 2006, where Baloch, mostly young men, were kidnapped, tortured, and executed in extra-judicial killings in the province. The bodies were usually dumped to warn others from following a separatist path. Hundreds of men remain missing.
The campaign has not only seen young Baloch separatists targeted, but also academics, lawyers, teachers and doctors, who have raised their voices against injustices to the Baloch. For their part, fighters have also targeted non-Baloch earning a living in Balochistan. Professors, labourers and miners have all been killed.
Bound by Afghanistan and Iran on its West and the Arabian Sea towards the south, with a total area of nearly 350,000sq km, Balochistan, makes up 43 percent of Pakistan. Grievances run deep; only 0.3 percent of its 13 million inhabitants have access to clean drinking water, compared with 21 percent in Punjab. Its literacy rate is 30 percent lower than in Punjab. Official statistics place Balochistan’s population at the bottom of those living below the poverty line in all of Pakistan’s four provinces.
This neglect has fuelled the Baloch sense of alienation, and Bugti’s killing served as a catalyst for renewed separatism. Some of the main separatist leaders are Allah Nazar, Harbiyar Marri, and Javed Mengal. Apart from Nazar, a middle-class physician, all key separatist leaders, the scions of chieftains, direct their campaigns from abroad.
Challenges to peace are many: Nazar’s Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and Marri’s Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) have already rejected Brahmdagh Bugti’s statement. Equally, keen observers of the Balochistan scene point towards many in the opposite camp who have enhanced their power by hanging on to the military’s coat-tails and would not want more representative leaders accommodated.
Any peace will arrive with enormous economic benefits due to trade with a sanction-free Iran. China’s keen interest in the $45bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, connecting Gwadar Port on the Balochistan coast and the Chinese province of Xinjiang beyond the mountain ranges in Pakistan’s far north, is another opportunity. Both those who hold power and ordinary Baloch will benefit.
Abbas Nasir is a former editor of Pakistan’s English language newspaper Dawn and former executive editor at BBC Asia-Pacific region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.