For over a year now, Pakistan's resource-rich but extremely backward province of Balochistan has witnessed clashes between armed Balochs and the Pakistan army, culminating in a massive military operation in the third week of December. Islamabad says the provocation for its action has come from tribal chiefs and nationalists who are opposed to development and have consequently created a perilous law and order situation. Not true, argues the other side, justifying their insurrection on the grounds that they have been denied their legitimate share in the income generated from the province's gas reserves; that the province has been excluded from the country's political process; that the slogan of development is just a pretext for the Pakistan army to expand its presence in the province.
As Islamabad continues to unsheath its iron fist, and accuses India of fomenting trouble in the province, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)
Asma Jahangir visited the affected areas. Her team was fired upon during the conduct of its investigations. She returned from Balochistan to demand an immediate ceasefire and permission to the International Red Cross to visit the area where, she claimed, a war-like situation prevails. Excerpts from an interview with
How did the Balochistan problem start?
It's a problem that started many decades ago, and sparked the insurgencies of the Baloch nationalists in 1948, 1958-59, 1962-63 and 1973-77—all of which the army suppressed. In the 1970s, the Baloch nationalists were ousted from power by the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto government, upon which they launched an armed struggle to reclaim power. In the 1980s and 1990s, they were part of the democratic landscape under the governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. However, since the 1999 military takeover, they have been excluded from power in the province. The subsequent standoff between the government and Baloch nationalists has broken into warfare from time to time. What has sparked off the recent crisis is the contention of the Balochis that the province is being militarised, cantonments are being set up in the name of development, and that the real motive is to completely take over the natural resources of Balochistan, particularly in Kohlu and Dera Bugti.
Why did the HRCP decide to send a team to Balochistan?
Disturbed by reports of renewed armed conflict in parts of Balochistan that began to pour in during December 2005, an HRCP fact-finding team visited the troubled areas near Kohlu. Another mission visited Dera Bugti and Sui in January, as fighting expanded. The government had denied having launched a military operation, saying it was only dealing with a law and order situation in Balochistan where a few miscreants were involved. Our information was very different. So, sitting here one could not really judge. It was really imperative for us to go at a time when we already had information on bombardments, rocket attacks, aerial firing and allegations that innocent women and children were being killed in the conflict.
On the way to the troubled areas of Balochistan, your convoy was attacked. Do you have any idea who the assailants were?
The attack obviously came from those elements who wanted to stop us from visiting the troubled areas. As we reached Kashmore, we were attacked by some unknown persons who unleashed Kalashnikov fire on us for at least five minutes. We are particularly disturbed that authorities didn't lodge our complaint. To add insult to the injury, some officials of the Frontier Constabulary (a paramilitary force), compelled journalists to report a statement allegedly issued by the Balochistan Liberation Army, claiming responsibility for the attack. Almost every journalist who met our team complained of threats from intelligence agencies. A few of them said they had been picked up by the agencies and released.
What are the HRCP's observations about the situation in Balochistan?
Having visited the trouble-stricken areas, particularly Dera Bugti and Kohlu, the HRCP found that the military action had led to many deaths and injuries among civilians. Populations had also been subjected to indiscriminate bombing. The dead even included some Hindus, many of whom had been forced to leave their homes due to the fighting. There was also an immense sense of fear among ordinary people, particularly in Dera Bugti, from where 85 per cent of the population had fled. Many complained about the heavy deployment of paramilitary forces in the area, contradicting government officials who claimed that citizens appreciated their presence there.
While reports of any military action are officially denied, the evidence that is emerging from Balochistan is to the contrary. The army is involved—because there has been aerial firing, even bombardment at some places. We were able to verify that some of the children and women had been killed not in crossfire but because of indiscriminate use of force. We are shocked that authorities had provided no information or explanation to the people of Pakistan regarding the ongoing military operation in Kohlu district. The disproportionate use of force, mass arrests of civilians and the lack of accountability of state agencies amount to grotesque violation of the most basic rights of citizens.
What do you say to the government's accusation that India is fomenting unrest in Balochistan?
Yes, unfortunately, the government has made allegations that India is responsible for this unrest. I am in no position to say whether or not India is supporting the Baloch nationalists. I certainly do not think that the many people I met in Quetta, who were middle-class lawyers and journalists and very upset with the situation, have any links or resources at their disposal from any foreign power. I didn't see a single non-Baloch there. Whether or not India is supporting them is not something I have any way of gauging. It's sad that allegations are made without proper proof, without taking people into confidence, because they put the seeds of doubt in the people's minds. The allegations are equally worrying because the Baloch have always felt that the ruling party has always looked at them with suspicion.
Should the Indian government have reacted to the situation in Balochistan?
Human rights issues are universal. When our government takes up the issue like that of the massacre in Gujarat, not only our government but all governments of the world should make India accountable. Therefore, it's just right that when systematic human rights violations are taking place in Balochistan, the world community pays attention to it. India is part of the world community, part of the region as well. I hope that not only India but other countries do pay attention. We expect India and Pakistan to take notice of what happened in Myanmar and Nepal. So what is happening in Balochistan is grave enough to take notice of.
What's the solution to Balochistan?
The only sane solution lies in a negotiated political settlement and long-term policies that can address the deep-rooted feelings of injustice among the people of the province. We are convinced violence can resolve nothing. We urge the military authorities and the Baloch nationalists to move towards dialogue, so that the prevailing situation does not worsen any further in the days and weeks ahead.
Are you satisfied with the state of women and minorities' rights in Pakistan?
No, not at all! The rights of minorities are something that is not on the government agenda. Violence against them is not investigated properly. But one cannot take out the rights of women and minorities from the whole system of governance in Pakistan. There have to be democratic institutions that take care of the rule of law. When these are completely absent and work at the whims of one individual, then things become very difficult, and also have a different meaning.
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