Is the Federation at Risk?
By Kunwar Idris


Can the building of the Kalabagh dam and the bombing of Baloch insurgents (or call them miscreants) lead to the break-up of the federation? The need is to confront this question. The federal government would rather duck the question altogether while its spokesman Sheikh Rashid prefers to answer it by breaking the necks of those who talk of a break-up.
The resistance to the dam and to central authority as a whole is symptomatic of a spreading discontent in the three smaller provinces about political rights and economic resources being denied to them by the federation which is dominated by Punjab, the largest province. They aspire to wrest control from both by remaining within the federation if they can and by quitting it if they must.
Pakistan, indeed, is a peculiar federation. The population of Punjab exceeds the population of the other three provinces — Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan — put together. Balochistan contains 44 per cent of the area but less than five per cent of the population. The capital of the federation is in Punjab and so are the headquarters of the army, navy and air force, the railways and WAPDA.
All three armed forces, more significantly the army, are overwhelmingly Punjabi. This is significant because the army exercises enormous influence on civil life and administration. When Pakistan is under military rule, which it has been longer than under elected governments, the other provinces feel deprived of political power but Punjab does not.
The Kalabagh dam, leaving aside the technical and economic arguments for or against it, has assuredly served to consolidate the sentiment in the three smaller provinces against the federation. Whatever the bias of the experts or motives of the politicians, the common people, more in Sindh than in the other two provinces, have come to believe that the project has been conceived for the benefit of Punjab alone. The federal government’s latest brainchild to push it through Council of Common Interests (a constitutional body that has remained dormant all this while) and then through the parliament will only harden this belief.
Everybody can foresee that it will not be difficult for the pro-dam lobby to garner a majority both in the council and in parliament. The four chief ministers and an equal number of members from the federal government appointed by the president, with the prime minister presiding, constitute the council. With the Punjab chief minister siding with the federal members, the council would obviously vote for the dam. As required under the Constitution, the divided opinion of the council will go before parliament where the ruling coalition has the majority both in the National Assembly and in the Senate.
By using this device the federal government may get the legal authority to build the dam but the differences between the center and Punjab on the one side and the Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan on the other are bound to degenerate into hostility. The three provinces will be convinced more than ever before that they can never be equal partners in the federation. Punjab, with a population larger than that of the three put together and, to boot, backed by the armed forces would always have its way.
Yet another aspect not to be lost sight of in this controversy is that the secular elements in the three smaller provinces are opposed to the dam. The clerics will watch from the sidelines and look out for the winning route. Musharraf will be compelled to woo them back once again making a mockery of his enlightened moderation.
It hurts to contemplate and is hard to concede but the ground reality cannot be overlooked that the issues bedevilling the country today are fundamentally the same ones that tore East Pakistan apart. The current forces may be weaker and divided but the underlying grievance is the same today as it was then that Punjab and the army together are steamrolling the opposition. The confidence that defeating the dissidents this time round would be surer and quicker in the absence of a hostile neighbour to provide arms and shelter should not make the federal authority complacent. The mistrust will exacerbate and economic progress will suffer.
The Marris may be subdued by force but foreign exploration companies will not venture into their area (as they haven’t so far) until their sardar agrees to help. The nation thus would continue to be denied access to the gas reserves in the Marri area which are believed to be larger than those in Sui and now fast depleting. Nor would it be possible to drill deeper in Sui while the Bugti sardar is on the warpath.
It is a sad commentary on the Balochistan policy of successive governments that while we explored and developed the Sui gas field with the help of the tribes 50 years ago, today we have to fight them to save it from being blown up.
The controversy over Kalabagh and the military (or let it be paramilitary) action in Balochistan is undoubtedly hurting the unity of the federation. In the course of time with the majority in Punjab and the might of the army, opposition to the Kalabagh dam may die down and recalcitrant Baloch tribes may also be tamed but the country will be put to greater risk of internal subversion and foreign interference. In today’s globalized world one can’t be distinguished from the other.
A prudent course for the government to follow at this stage would be to stop aggressive advocacy of the Kalabagh project and to reach an understanding with the Baloch sardars under which their supporters do not damage the public installations and the government doesn’t seek any more control of their territory than it has traditionally exercised.
The construction of Kalabagh or other dams may be left to be decided by parliament and the provincial legislatures elected after the next election. The same should hold true for the degree of autonomy the Baloch tribes demand. Both these issues have waited a resolution for a number of years — and an additional two years wouldn’t do any harm. The paramount question is of greater provincial autonomy. It is demanded by every province and party and has been conceded in principle even by the president. Once the provinces acquire greater and equal say in the affairs of the federation, the dam and Baloch problems will resolve themselves.
The critical question that rankles is whether the next elections will throw up legislatures and governments that are truly representative of public opinion across the country. That would only be if all individuals and parties are permitted to contest and results are not rigged.
Free and fair elections are not difficult to plan and hold if such is the intention. Many countries, more backward and violent than Pakistan, have been able to do it. Will the next elections be fair and free? On this question hinges the fate of the country. Pessimism abounds but there is no alternative. A political government emerging out of rigged elections is worse than a dictatorship. That has been Pakistan’s experience. (Courtesy Dawn)


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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