June 29, 2020

By Malik Siraj Akbar

When the former Balochistan Chief Minister and the president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-Mengal), Sardar Akhtar Mengal, announced on June 17 his party’s decision to withdraw support from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) coalition government in Islamabad, it seemed like a dignified breakup of the two strange bedfellows.

While the BNP vaunted coming out clean from the two-year-long partnership by refusing to succumb to any offers of ministries and government privileges, the PTI too exercised enormous restraint by not engaging in mudslinging toward its former ally.

Prime Minister Imran Khan immediately dispatched federal ministers Pervez Khattak and Asad Umar to meet with Mengal to urge him to reconsider his decision. The meeting at Federal Lodges in Islamabad was destined to fail. At least, it confirmed that Mengal had alternative plans for his next steps while the PTI got a brief opportunity to make this closure less awkward by mentioning that its doors were still open for Mengal although his politics drastically differs from that of the PTI.

It’s obvious that Mengal is temporarily the winner in the aftermath of this split. When he visits home in Balochistan, his voters would see him as a hero who fought for the rights of the Baloch instead of debauching with government ministries. He’d even tell them that he fearlessly called out the Islamabad establishment by its name and the crimes attributed to it.

Missed Opportunity

In the long-run, this breakup (between a pro-establishment and an anti-establishment Baloch nationalist party), ironically, is still unfortunate. This disrupts a rare communication channel between two divergent political forces. It is not common for politicians with entirely different perspectives and visions to come together to accomplish results that serve the broader public good. The PTI-BNP alliance was one such unique endeavor that at least allowed the two sides to directly communicate with each other to discuss, for example, how a policy seen by one party as useful might hurt the other. This partnership could also provide a template for a more fruitful dialogue between Balochistan and Islamabad in the future.

With Mengal breaking the alliance, hopes have perished for many families in Balochistan who saw in him an advocate and a persistent fighter for the recovery of the missing Baloch persons. He actually politicized the issue of the missing persons for valid reasons. As an ally of the government, he apparently had some, albeit limited, leverage over the PTI than he does now. On the other hand, the PTI has missed an opportunity to engage with and learn directly from an informed and influential Baloch stakeholder.

Mengal is not an exception among people who find the fight for the recovery of the missing persons profoundly exhausting. Journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates, who have worked on this issue for years, all feel they have reached burnout. They repeatedly meet a dead-end as, for instance, the very Commission, formed by the government to recover the missing persons, often ends up ridiculing or discounting the accounts of the family members of the missing persons. Sometimes, they accuse the disappeared persons of having voluntarily left the country. On other occasions, officials divert attention from the issue by instead contesting the accuracy of the data related to enforced disappearances.

Bargaining Chip

A frustrated Mengal complains that for every missing person who resurfaces in Balochistan, several others go missing.

The PTI-BNP alliance might seem like a disaster if one listens to and believes in Mengal’s speeches. Statistically, this partnership still accomplished more on missing persons than the past governments of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s Party collectively under the leadership of chief ministers Dr. Malik, Sanaullah Zehri and Aslam Raisani.

One of the reasons why the PTI-BNP alliance failed was because Balochistan’s problems outpaced the PTI’s capacity or the will to address them all at a speed the Baloch nationalists wanted. Frankly, some specific issues, such as that of human rights’ abuses allegedly committed by security forces and the Baloch concerns on the Gwadar Port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, transcend the PTI’s (or any democratic government’s) mandate.

The PTI, while previously pledging to comply with Mengal’s Six-Point agenda in 2018 when gathering support to form the government in Islamabad, seemingly overpromised with the Baloch nationalists or underestimated the complexity of issues pertaining to Balochistan.

On his part, Mengal significantly raised expectations among his followers. When some of the missing persons began to return home after the two sides began to work together, Mengal’s popularity dramatically soared in Balochistan, where his admirers viewed him as a go-getter and a tough politician who could simultaneously challenge and negotiate with Islamabad.

Nonetheless, there is also a dark and disconcerting side of this ‘success story,’ and it is this: Pakistani Baloch citizens, who had gone missing for months and years, were released only after the PTI and the BNP brokered a political deal. These citizens should not have been subjected to forced disappearance in the first place, nor should they, as citizens promised equal rights under the Constitution, have required an arrangement between two parties to guarantee their release. The Baloch citizens should not have been used as a bargaining chip in this political theater. Whether it was a compulsion or a strategy, this set a bad precedence for the future and how Islamabad negotiates with Balochistan.

Way Forward

If one is allowed one cliche per article, it is this: Mengal’s decision will widen the pre-existing gulf between Balochistan and Islamabad. It will give credence and ammunition to the separatist narrative that would manipulate this event as a data point to tell its supporters that Islamabad is unwilling to negotiate with Balochistan, not because it has a problem with the insurgency or the separatist demands. Islamabad, according to the Baloch nationalist narrative, is simply unwilling to hold serious talks with Balochistan no matter who (whether a separatist or a moderate) is on the table.

For some reason, people can’t believe that this is all to the PTI-Mengal saga. They insist that there is more to it. There are widespread speculations on what Mengal’s next move would be. It seems inconceivable that Mengal has no plan after dumping the PTI. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam met with the BNP chief soon after Mengal departed from the government. Former President Asif Ali Zardari also spoke to Mengal. Subsequently, Zardari reportedly told his party leaders that Islamabad must now be more careful in how it handles Balochistan.

“If there is another Akbar Bugti-like incident,” he reportedly warned, “no one will be able to control the situation in Balochistan.”

Summer of Discontent

Since for the first time in more than a decade the party that leads the (coalition) government in Islamabad is not the ruling party in Balochistan, this will make it less painful for the PTI should Mengal decide to join hands with the JUI to oust the Balochistan government led by Jam Kamal of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP).

The current situation in Balochistan seems conducive for a political upheaval as widespread protests have erupted in the province against what the locals describe as the excesses of the death squads and criminal gangs allegedly backed by the establishment to keep a check on the establishment’s critics in the province.

Discontent due to COVID-19 aside, there is growing dissatisfaction among doctors and students who have recently come under police brutality and arrest for demanding personal protective equipment and access to the internet to be able to attend online classes, respectively.

The insurgency in Balochistan has indeed shown some signs of a decline, but issues that still keep the armed groups active and attractive for young Baloch still remain unaddressed and unresolved. The insurgency is consistently showing signs that it is still attracting sections of young and educated Baloch. In May, the killing of Shahdad Baloch and Ehsan Baloch, both graduates from the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, stunned observers when it was revealed that they had joined the Baloch Liberation Army. Thus, fewer insurgent attacks mean that the Baloch insurgency is weak but still not dead.

Even if Mengal can assemble enough support from the JUI and some other local parties to oust Kamal’s government in Quetta, that would hardly mean anything in terms of coaxing Islamabad to change its behavior and policies toward Balochistan. As a matter of fact, Balochistan’s political circus would only give Islamabad more time to absolve itself from the failures that have made Balochistan the powder keg it is today.

Instead of competing against each other, which seems perfectly reasonable in any political culture, all parties in Balochistan should remind Prime Minister Khan that a lack of attention from him toward Balochistan’s issues is going to be counterproductive. It makes it difficult for them to assure the public in Balochistan that the PTI will someday revisit and prioritize Balochistan.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a graduate from Harvard University, is an expert on Balochistan and is based in Washington DC. He tweets at @maliksirajakbar