Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

Pakistan's territorial disunity stirs ghosts of a violent past

Strong forces are pulling three different sections of Pakistan towards greater independence.

More than 30 years after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan finds itself sucked into a quagmire from which it is hard to extract itself. Its governance structures, never strong points, are broken. Pakistan is now radicalised to a point where even the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, accuses it of exporting terrorism.

Located on historic invasion routes to India, the lands that now constitute Pakistan have had their fair share of border changes. In the process, many kingdoms, sultanates and states have been formed and disintegrated.

Perceived discrimination was the basis of independence movements that created Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. And today, three different territorial issues have the potential of seriously altering the current boundaries of the state.

Balochistan, Pakistan's largest province by area, constituting nearly 42 per cent of the country and home to much of its natural resources, is into its fifth military confrontation with the federation since its controversial accession in 1948. Balochis have continued to resent the exploitation of their resources, with little compensation. The current troubles began in 2002, when the army moved in to set up cantonments in Kohlu and Sui districts, which are located in the middle of the country.

The callous killing of the Oxford educated tribal leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti, in 2006, has led the Baloch nationalists and the military into a war of attrition. Thousands of Baloch young men have allegedly disappeared in the process. Many tortured and mutilated bodies have since been found.

In late September, the self-exiled former Chief Minister of Balochistan, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, in a surprise Supreme Court appearance, presented his "six points" for bringing peace to the province. But these "six points" only demand establishment of the rule of law in Balochistan.

The provincial chief minister admits he has no authority. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Balochistan government has constitutionally failed. The military's statement supporting a political solution to Balochistan provided it is "within the constitution" sounds hollow. Yet proposed energy pipelines, critical to the economic growth of Pakistan and Gwadar port's success, depend upon peace in Balochistan.

The second territorial hot spot is Sindh, the only province that voted for a Muslim League-majority government before the partition of India. People in Sindh have not forgiven the Punjab-led army for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's killing, in 1979 (the Bhutto family traces its ancestral roots to Sindh).

To destroy Bhutto charisma, especially in urban Sindh, General Zia Al Haq sponsored the Muhajir Qaumi Movement-MQM (meaning refugee - the descendants of migrants from India, and later renamed Muttahida Qaumi Movement), arguably the first ethnic party in Pakistan. The Karachi-centred MQM has been unable to garner any support in other provinces.

Pashtuns, about 25 per cent of the 20 million people in Karachi, now demand more political space. With MQM unable to augment their numbers, every round of trouble is deadlier than the previous one.

To secure a governing coalition, President Asif Ali Zardari, is taking the short-term route of placating the MQM, which is widely believed to harbour plans to divide Sindh. Knowing their value to President Zardari, the MQM demands and receives higher returns every time it threatens to walk out of the coalition. The recently promulgated Sindh local government law, negotiated secretly between Mr Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the MQM will solidify MQM's control of cities and thus access to huge funds. The Sindhi nationalists and others coalition partners have quit Sindh cabinet in protest.

The MQM and the Pashtuns are arming themselves for a possible showdown. With time running against them, the MQM are in a hurry to secure political advantage.

The third territory in crisis is southern Punjab. Some months back the PPP, protesting against discrimination, called for the division of Punjab for "administrative" reasons into a Saraiki speaking southern Punjab province, and a northern Punjab. But the real reason is PPP's inability to break the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's (PML-N, referring to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) stranglehold over Punjab for over a quarter of a century.

For obvious reasons, a call for the division of Punjab, which considers itself as the glue holding the country together, evokes sharp reaction.

Dithering initially, the PML-N, mindful of the electoral cost of opposing the idea, demanded Punjab be divided into three parts instead of two.

Political sparring has already begun for elections next year, leading to hardening of positions drawing similarities to East and West Pakistan fissures before 1970 elections.

The big issue is the reaction of the Punjab-based military. If trouble spills over to a point where a military solution is sought, a Bangladesh-like situation may arise, which will predictably be the "1971 moment", as some commentators fear. That year, of course, was when Bangladesh earned its independence.

Only a few things, like cold-blooded attacks on teenage girls, anti-Americanism or cricket, seems to unite Pakistanis now. Indeed, on the day Malala Yousafzai was attacked, 13 innocent women and children were killed in a US drone attack.

While history will judge the US for its actions, Pakistan needs to shed its own ignorance, elect credible and honest leaders, establish the rule of law and look inward to secure its future.


Sajjad Ashraf is a former Pakistani foreign service officer and an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore

Updated: November 11, 2012 04:00 AM



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