By Rabia Ahmed
Movements for separation to gain autonomy from a larger whole are on the increase, with the USSR, Scotland, and others in the past, to Brexit, and now Catalonia. It is in the interests of governments around the world to study these cases and either work towards keeping the disparate segments of their population happy, or figure out how best to allow them to separate if required; that is of course if they are interested in peace.
Has Pakistan, which has gone through two major and bloody separatist events, one which gave birth to the country, and the other that split it into half, learnt from any of these events given that there is a thriving separatist movement in Baluchistan that has existed ever since the country came into being?
Baluchistan makes up almost half of Pakistan, although population wise it is only almost 4 percent of the whole. But far from its people benefiting from the mineral wealth the province has contributed to the country’s economy, the Baluch are among the poorest and most marginalized, the majority of them living in abject poverty without the basic necessities of life, clean water and electricity.
Baluch dissatisfaction with this and the manner in which it became part of Pakistan took the form of rebellion, which, rather than being addressed at the roots has always been dealt with aggressively. With the separatist movement in Scotland, the government wisely allowed the Scots the democratic route, to choose whether to stay or leave by means of a referendum. The poll was held and they chose to stay. It was the same with French speaking Quebec in Canada. The idea of such a referendum in Baluchistan is a pie in the sky. Catalonia, like Baluchistan has long had a vigorous freedom movement. Like Baluchistan, Catalonia is a sparsely populated region. Its population accounts for just 19 percent of the whole of Spain. Unlike impoverished Baluchistan however, the people of Catalonia make up the wealthiest segment of Spain, although their wealth is more industrial (textiles, and a growing chemical and service industry) than mineral. But as in the case of Baluchistan where its secession would spell economic disaster for Pakistan since Baluchistan is one of the richest provinces of the country in terms of natural resources, the loss of Catalonia would mean a vital loss for Spain in terms of the Spanish economy.
In the early days of the Spanish Republic, Catalonia was granted a large degree of autonomy. This autonomy was revoked with the coming into power of General Franco, who also came down heavily on the distinctive Catalonian identity. The people of Catalonia were not allowed to use their language and other political and cultural restrictions were imposed upon them.
Franco’s dictatorship fed the already strong separatist sentiment in Catalonia, as bans, prohibitions and suppression invariably do, but dictators rarely understand this, and military dictators – never. In Catalonia, a poll was recently held to determine if its people want independence from Spain. Without taking into account the large number of abstentions, the result was pro-independence, and controversial.
After invoking article 155 of the Spanish constitution by means of which the center takes direct control of the largely autonomous province of Catalonia, the government of Spain declared the referendum for independence invalid, dissolved the Catalonian regional parliament, and ‘fired’ the Catalan leader, Mr. Puigdemont. The central government has ordered fresh elections in December, but in a refreshing contrast to the scenario in Pakistan, it has invited Mr. Puigdemont to stand in these elections if he wishes. There has been violence as a result of the Catalonian separatist movement, but this violence has been open.
The first act of aggression against Baluchistan was way back in 1948, right after Pakistan came into being. Then the army moved into the province, to ‘persuade’ a reluctant Kalat to join Pakistan. Kalat became part of Pakistan but the fact has never been accepted by Baluch Nationalists, who called the annexation a forced, unconstitutional move, as it was. This was followed by resort to other violence, such as the killing by the Pakistan army of Akbar Bugti and several of his men in 2006. There have been other operations, covert ones, kidnappings, and ‘disappearances,’ and it is alleged that around 4000 Baluch have been either detained without trial or determined missing. But now another factor has entered the field, namely CPEC (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) which is likely to play a crucial role in the economy and society of Pakistan and the region. It will certainly play an important role in Baluchistan seeing the layout of the corridor which stretches from Gwadar a port in Baluchistan in the south up to Kashgar, a Muslim province of China which is already a scene of unrest. It is a volatile setting. Surely on this occasion and in the light of changing times, the powers that be would do well to re-evaluate their relations with this province.
CPEC includes many transport and energy projects, and since Baluchistan contains the bulk of Pakistan’s gas and oil reserves, this marginalized, angry province will play a major role in this venture. You wonder what lies in store for the people of Baluchistan and the country as a result. The results of CPEC are as yet uncertain. If one can be certain of one thing it is that a lot depends on whether the people of Baluchistan feel they have gained by means of the project, or whether they feel cheated as they do at present. The track record of successive government of Pakistan, and of its intelligence services has not been good in this matter. One can only hope that sense will prevail, and with it chances of prosperity and peace.
(The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at http://rabia-ahmed.blogspot.com/)