The first thing I saw when I arrived in Sui was a large billboard with an image of a child splashed across it. The child was wearing a traditional Baloch outfit and turban. The photograph stood out because the bullet belt strapped across the child’s waist was studded with colour pencils, not bullets. Was this indicative of a changing attitude?


I was in Balochistan with a group of journalists — we had all been invited by the Pakistan Army to visit a ‘city dedicated to imparting quality education to Baloch natives’. An approximately two-hour long flight in a military helicopter took us from Khalid airbase in Quetta to Sui in Balochistan’s Dera Bugti district.


The Pakistan Army claims that it understands the power and importance of education, and so it has abandoned a newly constructed and controversial cantonment in Sui, using the land to construct an ‘education city’ instead. Cantonments have been a touchy topic in Balochistan, with many locals condemning them as symbols of occupation. The Balochistan Assembly had previously adopted a resolution opposing the construction of more cantonments in the province.


Addressing the inauguration ceremony of this education city and Military College at Sui, Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani said the move to convert the Sui Cantonment into an education city is in line with the federal government’s Balochistan Package and the aspirations of people who had staunch reservations about the military cantonments in Balochistan. The general also promised to recruit 10,000 Baloch youth in the army to address the Baloch people’s grievances. His speech was met with resounding applause from the listeners.


In this way, the army gave us the impression that all was well in Dera Bugti; that after facing tough resistance from who they termed insurgents, peace now reigned in the late Nawab Akbar Bugti’s stronghold. But locals were not as sanguine. Many Baloch I met in Quetta and Sui believed that repeated military operations, the broader issue of autonomy and the continuous denial of their rights to the natural resources of the province had done too much damage to be repaired so soon.


These are not baseless claims: while the commercial exploitation of natural gas at Sui began in 1954 and its fruits were first enjoyed by the Punjab, it took almost thirty years for the project’s benefits to trickle down to Balochistan. Natural gas reached Quetta only in 1984 and 1985.


Uneven inter-provincial royalty rates on natural gas (favouring Punjab and Sindh) and the contentious resource distribution formula under the National Finance Commission were some valid complaints. However, the introduction of the 18th Amendment aims to resolve some of these issues with greater provincial autonomy and enhanced shares under the NFC.


Yet the legacy of General Pervez Musharraf and the death of Nawab Akbar Bugti have deeply scarred the Baloch, who feel the government and intelligence agencies are working against them.


Conversely, the army and the administration appears to believe that external forces like India, Israel and Iran are solely responsible for fueling Balochistan’s insurgency. The army is of the view that only seven per cent of the population in four parts of the province, that is, Kharan, Punjgur, Turbat and Gwadar are responsible for the unrest. The rest of the population comprising Baloch, Pushtuns, and Brahvis are loyal and peaceful people, in their opinion.


But what the army didn’t seem to understand is that unrest in Balochistan is not just a numbers game. You can’t simply divide the locals into neat categories of ‘loyal’ and ‘rebellious’. Years of deprivation and neglect have made Baloch youth desperate — this desperation leads to frustration and anger and it is this anger that enemies exploit for their own benefit.


The army is also convinced that its presence in the province is crucial for the development and future of Balochistan. A plain-clothed army official at the ceremony insisted that the local population wants a military presence in Balochistan. He also condemned Herbyar Muree, Brahamdagh Bugti, Shahzain Bugti and others, calling them ‘anti-state elements’ because he believed that only the army was loyal to Pakistan. To date, I am unable to comprehend why development is conditional on the army’s presence.


A local Bugti tribal had an interesting yet ironic answer to this question: “Madam, if the army had not established an education city here, this place would have turn into a stable.”


And therein lies the rub. Every government in the center has used the same strategy to ‘handle’ Balochistan: they empower the Nawabs and Sardars by offering them high profile government positions. The common Baloch is ignored and left at their not-so-tender mercies, which has aggravated the situation. While the scions of these sardars and nawabs comfortably studied in elite educational institutions abroad, the common baloch were deliberately plunged into the darkness of illiteracy. Without addressing the flaws in this approach the problems of Balochistan will remain unsolvable.


There is also a deep nationalist resentment against what is largely perceived by common Baloch as the weakness of civil administration. During my visit to Sui, an army official very candidly responded to my question of how much power the commander of the southern command in Balochistan possesses: “he can actually over throw both the governor and the chief minister,” said the army man.


In the light of this bold claim, I was impressed by the courage of the governor of Balochistan Zulfiqar Magsi, who took advantage of the presence of the army chief at the inauguration ceremony and brought up the case of missing persons. Magsi’s comment on the establishment of the Sui military college was also spot on when he said, “logon ko pata chal gaya hay kay ab danday say kaam nahi chalay ga magar taleem say chalay ga” (people have realised that might is not always right and that education is a more powerful force for change.).


But the true responsibility of raising and tackling the crucial issue of missing persons rests with the chief executive of the provincial government, Chief Minister Nawab Aslam Raisani. His policy statements about unrest in Balochistan being caused by non-state actors did not, at least convince me. When I confronted him with the claim that it was his weak grip on the government machinery responsible for law and order in the province that had in fact caused the problem, the honourable chief minister brushed aside my query by stating it was untrue.


On a positive note, the establishment of education city by the military in the heart of a conflict zone is indeed a laudable effort. However whether the exercise is merely changing the name of a cantonment to appease locals or a genuine attempt to address grievances is yet to be determined. Certainly, winning the hearts and minds of the common Baloch can only be achieved by opening schools and hospitals, by creating employment opportunities, more giving the locals more control over their natural resources and ultimately bringing the Baloch youth into the mainstream. If this is not done, no amount of education cities and packages will stem the flow of blood.


Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 27th, 2011.

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