In a recent visit to Gwadar, with the aim to portray a positive image of the port city by launching various infrastructure projects, Prime Minister Imran Khan voiced his intention to hold talks with Baloch insurgents who are offering resistance in Balochistan. But soon, his announcement was overtaken by confusion due to contradictory statements from within the government regarding the criteria to be met for negotiations. Still, Khan appointed Shahzain Bugti, a member of the National Assembly and the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, the late leader of the Baloch insurgency, his special assistant on “reconciliation and harmony in Balochistan.” All these announcements were made within three days, but the confusion and contradictions that emerged at this initial stage have raised questions about government’s seriousness and understanding of the issue.
Shahzain Bugti has been appointed as special assistant to the prime minister for the task, but his role and responsibilities are not clear yet. Allegedly, as per Bugti himself, even days after the announcement, he has not been talked to or briefed about his role as a mediator. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that Bugti was chosen for such a central role in mediation efforts. Even though he is the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, Shahzain Bugti does not seem to have either the required credibility or the desire for meaningful negotiations.
This is the fifth wave of nationalist insurgency in Balochistan. Given the historical precedents of negotiations between the state and Baloch insurgents, it can be presumed that such matters are not decided by the political leadership but by the security establishment. Since the federal government has made the announcement, it is obvious that the military given go-ahead to try for talks. However, the history of such interactions is also not encouraging. Past efforts left a legacy of broken promises and maltreatment, leading to extreme mistrust between the two sides.
In order to remove these hurdles and create an atmosphere of trust, certain essential measures need to be taken. These include, importantly, improving the human rights situation in the province and expressing a willingness to address the historical grievances of Balochistan by showing readiness to recognize local people’s right to self-rule. And unfortunately, there are no signs of a policy shift in this regard. Over the years, the problem has escalated to such a level where it is no longer about interference in the provincial domain but a question of the establishment’s absolute control over provincial affairs. In this situation, even those who believe in democratic struggle within the framework of the Pakistani state are being pushed to the wall. That is why even the mainstream Baloch nationalists are skeptical about government’s plan for talks.
The controversy of the Gwadar mega-project, particularly the issue of demographic change, was at center of the ongoing conflict between Islamabad and the province in the early 2000s. All the nationalist forces, including Nawab Akbar Bugti, demanded legislation to protect Baloch rights, identity, and the province’s demography. But no one paid them any heed. That further accelerated resentment and increased political tension as well as intensifying armed resistance in the province. Even now, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is centered on Gwadar, is the target of insurgent attacks.
No one has tried to address this genuine concern regarding local demography, despite apparent political consensus on the matter. A study by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) also endorsed the apprehension of demographic change, stating that based on the current rate of influx of Chinese nationals into Balochistan, and after the completion of CPEC, the native population of Balochistan might be outnumbered by 2048. During the last two decades, four different governments have been unable or unwilling to address this single issue. Why, then, should Balochs expect that the Khan government is willing and able to reconcile and solve the more complex conundrum of Baloch autonomy?
For the last two decades, Balochistan has witnessed severe unrest. The last serious effort to initiate dialogue with Baloch insurgents was made in 2015, when Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch was chief minister of the province. He attempted to engage exiled Baloch leaders in talks and succeeded in approaching Khan of Kalat Suleman Dawood and Brahumdagh Bugti. Malik was given a mandate by the top political and military brass to pursue political reconciliation with all stakeholders. Both the estranged leaders were met by multiple delegations and were invited into the mainstream. Dawood presented some confidence building conditions before starting formal negotiations, which he said should include the military establishment and international guarantors. For his part, Brahumdagh Bugti agreed to peace talks on the condition of ending military operations and withdrawing armed forces from the province, thereby expressing the possibility of giving up his demand for an independent Balochistan. He also showed his willingness to recognize the constitution of Pakistan. Although Bugti’s remarks were described as an olive branch to the military, this offer was turned down. With the change in the military leadership of the province in October 2015, the initiative lost enthusiasm, and later with the completion of Maliks’s term as chief minister in December 2015, it entirely faded away.
Since then, there were no loud calls for reconciliation by the state until Khan’s announcement was made. What has caused this sudden change of mind? There are three possibilities.
First, the government is not serious, and the move is a deceptive step to manipulate public opinion. The government is attempting to create an image of Islamabad as serious and wanting a peaceful solution to the problem, but the Baloch leaders are not willing to negotiate.
Second, it may be that some backchannel contacts with certain individuals have brought positive results and the announced scheme is a decent cover-up for those who are willing to join the mainstream or abandon their anti-state activities.
Third, the government may be concerned about the Afghan crisis looming over their heads. If the Taliban take over Kabul and consolidate their position, the Baloch insurgents will likely lose their alleged support from the other side of border. This move might be intended to incentivize and open a way for Baloch insurgents to return and refrain from armed struggle. However, there are still many ifs and buts unanswered in the Afghanistan paradox.
Thus, despite every attempt to be optimistic about the announced plan, there is little of a genuine reconciliatory approach aimed at finding a solution to the Baloch problem. Until and unless the genuine historical grievances of Balochs are addressed, cosmetic measures to show sincerity will not work. Even if the insurgency is diffused for the time being, without addressing the root of the problem, history tells us that it will be only a matter of time before violence resumes.