Is a rollback possible?


Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

ALL apologies whether personal, political or national have to be followed up and backed by concrete and substantial steps to end or ease the grievances, violations and confrontations which were the reason for apology in the first place.

If these measures do not materialise quickly enough then the apology is not worth the paper it is written on and moreover it is counterproductive. In short, to back up the apology there has to be a rollback of the policies that have angered individuals, communities or nations.

Apologies are not a trivial or frivolous matter and need to be tendered in a considered, formal and decorous manner to carry weight and be acceptable to those addressed. If the intent is to hoodwink and gain support and sympathy on a sensitive issue, such apologies do more harm than good because they ultimately increase disenchantment and disillusionment.

The PPP, leader of the coalition that will shortly take up the reins of governance, offered an apology last month to the people of Balochistan for “the atrocities and injustices committed” in the province in the past. It also called for an immediate halt to the ongoing military operation there and release of all political prisoners, including former chief minister Akhtar Mengal.

This apology has been taken with a pinch of salt by nationalist leaders including Sardar Ataullah Mengal. He termed the apology a positive but insufficient step, and doubted that the PPP would be able to solve the problems facing Balochistan. He said “the civil-military bureaucracy has always called the shots here” and added that the situation in the troubled province would remain the same until the “colonial perception of the rulers” changed and basic issues such as provincial autonomy were addressed.

I feel I too am entitled to a response to the apology because, like scores of others, I was on the receiving end of the massive military operations (1973-77) carried out in Balochistan after the illegal dismissal of the Mengal government during the PPP’s first tenure at the centre. It was in 1978 that I, along with many Marri families, went to Afghanistan as a refugee fleeing the repression and ravages of the state against unarmed people and stayed there for 13 long years in what was a singularly turbulent period in that country’s history. I didn’t live in luxury in Kabul but with the people in refugee camps. I am not a closet nationalist as I have frequently aired my political views in the press. The stark terror that military operations generate among the populace is beyond the comprehension of those who have not suffered it. Women and children naturally suffer the most. Fear haunts you constantly and the slightest hint of approaching danger is terrifying. Those men unlucky enough to fall into the clutches of the security forces carry scars for life — if they survive the ordeal. I know of numerous disappearances during that time of people personally known to me. Military operations against unarmed civilians are as abominable as they are inexcusable and the present operations in Balochistan should stop forthwith if a response is expected from the nationalists.

The life of refugees isn’t easy either, especially when the refugee status is not internationally recognised and the host country is itself in turmoil. Deaths due to preventable diseases and attacks by enemies of the host leave indelible scars on the psyche and are neither easily forgotten nor forgiven.

The pain and suffering I witnessed in the Marri area, and that of the Marri population that was forced to migrate to Afghanistan, was the microcosm of the torment and anguish that has been the fate of the Baloch people since Partition and which continues unabated with increasing ferocity with every new chapter of confrontation. The suffering multiplies many times over as each conflict is upgraded from the previous one. The grievous wounds inflicted over 60 years cannot be healed with an apology from a party that will head the next government. Wounds are not soothed by words alone. Mindsets and ground realities do not change with words. This apology will not change the ground reality an iota because only institutionalised change can make a difference. But that requires patience, time and effort, qualities which have always been in scarce supply in governance here.

The military operations in Balochistan will certainly not be curtailed any time soon regardless of the party that is in power because the distrust with which the establishment views the nationalists, and vice versa, is too deep-rooted to be overcome in the near future. The continued illegal incarceration of Akhtar Mengal on flimsy grounds and the disappearance of people in the province are not an aberration but the norm. They are part of a deliberate, calculated and organised policy aimed at subduing and taming all those who dare to raise their voice against the injustices that are rampant and relentless in Balochistan.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal’s release was the first test for Governor Magsi and he failed miserably. This alone proves the hollowness of the new appointment. The PPP-led government there will prove to be even more of a charade in practical terms than the wording of its apology.

The apology could well be tested shortly after the new government is formed. Will military operations in Balochistan be halted? Will the building and expansion of cantonments be stopped? Will the new government be willing and, moreover, able to remove the fears and grievances that the Baloch people have regarding Gwadar and other mega projects? Will the fear of being turned into a minority by the influx of people from other provinces be fully addressed?

Will the new airport in Gwadar be handed over to the CAA to ensure that a military base is not established there? Will Saindak’s unjust income-sharing formula be reversed to give Balochistan 48 per cent and the centre two per cent? Will they refrain from using Hingol National Park as a testing ground for the air force?

I don’t think there is the remotest possibility of any of this happening — and unless corrective measures are undertaken there will be no one among the nationalists who will come forward to talk.

Those who have been calling the shots will not accede to even the most justified of demands as their financial, commercial and imaginary strategic interests will be sorely hurt by any such rollback in Balochistan. The party that forms the government would have to take decisions which could imperil its own existence and no one goes to that extreme for the children of lesser gods.

The Balochistan policy is too entrenched and too consolidated a policy of the establishment to see change at the bidding of pliable political parties that have always been more concerned with catchy slogans and opportunism than with concrete measures. To expect the PPP and other parties to sacrifice power for principles is asking for miracles.

This article was first published on 24 March, 2008

The writer has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He tweets at mmatalpur and can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

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