Is the Federation
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
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
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
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)