IF Baloch nationalist leader Akhtar Mengal does return to take part in the next general election as announced, it’ll be a significant development and may help stabilise Balochistan.
The last election was boycotted by all nationalist forces following the killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti in a military operation just over a year earlier and the disastrous consequences of an alienated Baloch nationalist leadership and electorate are there for all to see.
Not only did the last elections see many credible leaders sitting on the sidelines, it also witnessed the coming to power of a coalition government headed by a largely dysfunctional chief minister whose lifestyle and health issues kept him away from his seat of power for long periods.
All this while the province was being ruled by armed bands striving for separation and not shying away from drawing innocent blood; murderous anti-Shia gangs; pro-government thugs run allegedly by the intelligence agencies and a belligerent paramilitary Frontier Corps.
This lethal combination where respect for law and civil conduct took a back seat inflicted such wounds on large swathes of the Baloch population — the Shia-Hazara community as also non-Baloch settlers — that some fear they may never heal.
It is difficult to speculate confidently how many people from among the Baloch ‘missing’, the Shia-Hazaras and the settlers (the last mentioned mostly falling victim in the earlier half of the strife) actually died. But given Balochistan’s population even a few thousand would be a huge number.
While the Baloch alienation went from bad to worse, the plight of the Hazaras manifested itself in passive protest and eventually saw the dismissal of the Raisani government and the imposition of governor’s rule as per the protesters’ demand last month.
But some who follow and understand the dynamics of the politics and the ‘games’ being played in the province are not optimistic that though significant, this dismissal would bring longer-term relief to the community given that underlying factors remain.
It isn’t rocket science to know what’ll placate the Baloch: a sense of ownership over their own destiny and resources, and provision of justice, particularly a commission which transparently investigates all allegations of rights abuses, especially the ‘kill and dump’ cases.
In fact, the first step towards assuaging Baloch anger would be to ensure that ‘real’ representatives are allowed to run and win in a free, fair election and there is no attempt to engineer a result.
If such elected representatives are able to form a government, it would be safe to assume that addressing the genuine grievances of their people will be a top priority. And the incoming government will have unprecedented resources at its disposal.
The latest constitutional amendments and the National Finance Commission award would ensure that; and the government would also have significant autonomy in how it allocates its resources. Even this, in all probability, is unlikely to placate the separatists.
But a more representative government may be better placed to initiate a quiet dialogue with the separatist leadership. It will also be mindful of its mandate in keeping an eye on the excesses of the state apparatus and unlikely to look the other way as the Raisani government did.
Peace in Quetta city, with its delicate ethnic balance disturbed by the mass arrival and settlement of Afghan Taliban and their ideological allies and supporters in an apparently planned move is an issue far more difficult to address let alone resolve.
While a lot of focus has rightly remained on the Shia faith of the Hazaras as they have been hunted and hounded by armed religious zealots’ murder squads, very little is said about other motives such as material gain and property prices.
A Baloch analyst says that despite the murder and mayhem associated with the Balochistan capital, property prices have not nosedived. “The city is a valley, a small bowl. Land here isn’t infinite. For every property being sold, there are many buyers.”
The analyst also points out that billions in ‘drug money’ from Helmand, Kandahar and other poppy-growing neighbouring provinces of Afghanistan are being invested heavily in the Quetta real estate. And whether it is the settler or the odd Shia Hazara who sells, the buyer is always the same.
“You’ll find the bulk of the buyers belonging to one ethnic group: the Afghan Pakhtuns, whether they have been regularised and able to buy directly or purchasing through third parties i.e. proxies,” the analyst said.
He also said the traditional commercial stakeholders of the city were Hazaras and Hindus but the balance started to tip with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s when not just refugees but millions of dollars of ‘war’ money started to flow in.
However, if one looks at Google images of the areas along the western and eastern bypasses of Quetta, it isn’t difficult to immediately observe how large, relatively well-laid out settlements were created to cater to the exodus from Kandahar following the US action in the wake of 9/11.
Where in much older and well-settled parts of the city, residents say, there was little provision of services like natural gas, water, electricity etc, the big plots and the houses built on these were connected without even the usual requirement of furnishing proper paperwork or allotment letters.
It was as if a powerful hand was guiding the process and facilitating the guests. But there are bigger prizes to be had in Quetta.
Marriabad, home to the tragically well-known Alamdar Road, where there is a large Hazara settlement for the past several decades, now forms the biggest real estate prize particularly from the security angle. It is barely a stone’s throw from the city’s sought-after cantonment.
For peace in Quetta, while it is rightly said a clampdown on terrorist organisations such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi is an imperative, it is also important that other factors such as a shrinking supply of land and who covets whose property are also taken into account. Or else a solution will not be forthcoming.